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3/23/2012
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John Foley
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Angry Birds Space Mirrors Real Rocket Science

Did you know Rovio's Angry Birds Space was developed in collaboration with NASA through a Space Act Agreement? The game illustrates microgravity, a concept fundamental to current NASA experiments.

NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
The day before Rovio Entertainment released its new Angry Birds Space game Thursday, NASA announced that 24 experiments would be conducted in space under a program that matches research projects with commercial spacecraft. You may be surprised to learn just how much the new game and the scientific experiments have in common.

Angry Birds Space is based on the popular Angry Birds game, introduced in 2009, in which ticked-off birds exact revenge on green pigs for stealing their eggs. The games run on Apple iOS and Android devices, PCs, and other platforms.

Angry Birds Space was developed in collaboration with NASA through a Space Act Agreement. For more than 50 years, NASA has used such agreements for a range of partnerships, including the recent push to augment its own space exploration capabilities with commercial flights. Google's virtual tour of Mars and the moon are the result of a Space Act Agreement. So, too, are the high-res images of Mars and other planets seen through Microsoft's Worldwide Telescope.

NASA seized on Angry Birds Space as an opportunity to educate the public on the law of physics that's fundamental to everything it does: gravity. On NASA.gov, it used the occasion to explain the difference between normal gravity (1g), zero gravity (0g), and microgravity (1x10-6 g), and to point out that experiments on the International Space Station happen in a microgravity environment. In a video demo of what that looks like in practice, astronaut Don Pettitt used a slingshot to catapult an Angry Bird across the interior of the Space Station.

Gravity is central to the Angry Birds Space game experience. "It's a great way to demonstrate how we can use trajectories to get from one place to another," said Joe Pascucci, the Space Station's trajectory operations officer, in an online interview with The Wall Street Journal. "It's a really good example of how interplanetary probes can take gravity assists from other planets."

How does microgravity game play relate to NASA's mission? On March 21, the agency detailed two dozen experiments to be performed on three types of suborbital flights--high-altitude balloons that soar above 65,000 feet, reusable launch vehicles, and a parabolic, or low-earth-orbit, aircraft. Those last two options are courtesy of NASA's expanding commercial space program, operated by companies such as Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, Near Space, UP Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, and Zero-G.

The high-flying aircraft will let NASA scientists run tests during periods of weightlessness. Among the payloads selected are "microgravity healthcare," nanoscale mixing using electrochemical electrodes, and evaporative heat transfer. The program is a way for university and other researchers to test and demonstrate the viability of emerging technologies in space on NASA's dime. (Commercial space travel isn't all test tubes and precision instrumentation. Virgin Galactic has a waiting list of 500 passengers to fly into space, at $200,000 a pop.)

NASA hopes that Angry Birds Space will spark kids to take a keener interest in math, physics, and engineering careers. That's something to think about the next time your 14-year-old is heads-down with an iPhone, zapping green pigs while ignoring everyone around him. I'm speaking from experience here.

Of course, there's a gigantic leap from the animated world of flying feathers into the real world of astronomy, aerospace science, and propulsion systems. NASA's Pascucci concedes that Angry Birds Space will get us only so far. "A good college education with a strong mathematics and physics background would be more important," he said.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

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