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Exploring the Solar System with NASA and Warframe

The various NASA missions to the inner and outer planets have allowed researchers to better understand these worlds. Through these robotic probes, humans have explored the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan, the series of storms on Jupiter known as the string of pearls, the howling winds on Neptune, the surprising number of moons around Pluto, and the toxic atmosphere on Venus. Warframe, set in the distant future, is a game that spans the solar system, and allows players to get down on the surface of the planets and the moons.

Mars. Image: Mars Global Surveyor/NASA.
Ceres. Image: Dawn/NASA.
A volcano erupts on Io. Image: New Horizons/NASA.
Europa in Warframe.
The south pole of Jupiter. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles.
Tethys, a Saturnian moon. Image: Cassini/NASA.
Titan, another moon of Saturn. Image: Cassini/NASA.
The missions map of Saturn in Warframe.
The outermost visible ring is the F ring. Image: Cassini/NASA.
Uranus. Image: Voyager 2/NASA.
Neptune. Image: Voyager 2/NASA.
Neptune in Warframe.
Pluto. Image: New Horizons/NASA.

Mercury

Only two spacecraft have observed the innermost planet in the solar system closely, and both of them were missions by NASA. The Mariner 10 mission was the first probe to visit Mercury, and executed slingshot manoeuvre around Venus to get there. This technique was demonstrated for the first time ever, and using the gravity of a planet or moon to get on the desired path would go on to become an important aspect of many future missions. The Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn both used Venus to slingshot into their intended trajectories.

Mercury. Image: NASA/Mariner 10

The Mercury missions (or maps) in Warframe mostly take place in a large spaceship of the Grineer, a faction of deteriorating clones. If the missions are not on the large Grineer Galleons, they are on asteroid bases. Although there are no known asteroids so close to the Sun, scientists have long been on the lookout for such a population of asteroids, called Vulcanoids. Harsh sunlight streams in through the larger windows on Grineer ships around Mercury, and if you find the right window, you are treated to a breathtaking view of the planet itself.

The only other probe to study Mercury was Messenger, which entered into orbit around the planet in 2011. The critical components on Messenger were protected from the extreme heat with a ceramic cloth covering. The Messenger spacecraft provided researchers with never before seen views of Mercury, as the Mariner 10 probe had only observed a single side of the planet on all three of its flybys. In Warframe, after completing a mission on the planet, Mercury can be seen from the observation deck on the Liset, your personal spaceship.

Venus

The primary task of the Magellan mission by NASA was to capture the highest resolution maps of the surface of Earth’s sister planet, using an imaging radar. The spacecraft also collected the data necessary to produce a global map of the gravity field on Venus, and demonstrated the aerobraking manoeuvre, where the atmosphere of the planet was used to control the trajectory of the spacecraft. Magellan also has the distinction of being the first interplanetary spacecraft to be launched from on board a space shuttle in orbit around Earth. In Warframe, Venus is controlled by the Corpus, a merchant faction with fighting units comprised of humanoid crewmen, as well as robots.

A number of probes from the Mariner program executed flybys of Venus, including Mariner 10 on its way to Mercury. Venus is blanketed by a thick layer of clouds and has an atmosphere with a large amount of carbon dioxide. Due to the composition of the atmosphere, the surface temperature of the planet is around 460 degrees Celsius. One of the pioneering researchers into climate change on Earth, Dr James E Hansen was provoked by studying the buildup of heat on Venus to investigate the effects of greenhouse gases on Earth.

Venus. Image: NASA/Mariner 10/Mattias Malmer

Tenno, or space ninjas in Warframe completing missions on the surface of Venus might initially be surprised to find out that there is actually a lot of snow on the planet. This is not an inaccuracy on the part of the game. The surface temperatures of the planet are hot enough to vaporise some minerals, but these have to go somewhere. They condense on the cold mountaintops, and there are plenty of these on Venus. Certain altitudes in the planet are cold enough to solidify carbon dioxide as well. The snowfall on Venus is made out of metal and dry ice.

Earth

One of the most historic photographs of the Earth was captured by the Apollo 17 crew, and is known as the “Blue Marble”. A series of global composite maps, released in 2009, 2013, and 2017 showcase the Earth at night. These are the “Black Marble” images. While the night lights of the cities do look pretty, they serve the function of showing the growth of urbanisation in regions across the planet. The images used for the Black Marble image have been sourced from the Suomi NPP satellite. NASA hopes to soon provide daily snapshots of the Earth at night, which has some interesting applications, including identifying illegal fishing vessels and tracking the growth of cities.

Image” NASA/NOAA/Soumi-NPP

Fortunately, in the distant future in Warframe, the Earth is not entirely devoid of plant life. Earth has been abandoned because of the toxic atmosphere, which is not that surprising. The planet has a stunning forest environment, which has been given multiple face-lifts in the updates over the years. Earth is also the only planet to have an open world environment, as against tiled maps that are spontaneously generated. The Plains of Eidolon was a significant update to Warframe, with the sprawling space offering free movement, and with almost as much content as the rest of the game. There is also a town where players can easily intermingle with others, called the settlement of Cetus. The Tenno can call in their Archwings and take flight over the plains. There is a day/night cycle in both the forest areas, as well as the Plains of Eidolon.

The settlement of Cetus

Moon

The Moon, as the nearest celestial body to the Earth, is an important object of interest for space exploration. The Moon was the first otherworldly location that humans planted their feet on, a first step in the effort to establish permanent human settlements on other worlds. The Moon is also expected to serve as a base of operations for future pioneering missions into the outer reaches of the solar system, including Mars. The proposed Deep Space Gateway in orbit around the Moon will allow NASA to test the instruments and equipment for long distance missions, to ensure that they work as expected in the depths of space.

If you look up to the skies from the Plains of Eidolon, there is an unsettling sight. The Moon appears to have partially disintegrated in Warframe. In the distant future, the Moon can fall apart if the tidal forces acting on it exceeds the gravity holding it together. This is expected to happen when the Sun enters the red giant phase in its life, but in Warframe, other events have led to the Moon falling apart ahead of schedule. There are massive structures barely holding together the main body of the Moon, which is called Lua.

The Moon, or Lua, as it appears from the Plains of Eidolon

While running through the maps on Warframe, there are massive mountains seen in the distance in the Moon. New mountains may have been formed by the geological upheaval of planet scale engineering, there are mountains on the Moon even today. Apart from the crater rims, the central portions of the craters have mountains. One of these mountains, in the middle of the Tycho crater, is where the Monolith was discovered in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This image was captured by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been instrumental in allowing NASA to plan future manned and robotic missions to the surface of Earth’s satellite.

The Tycho Mountains. Image: NASA/LRO

Mars

There have been a number of probes sent by NASA to explore the Red Planet from orbit. These include the Mariner, Viking, Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey missions. Dawn executed a slingshot around Mars on its way to Ceres. The mosaic below is composed of over 100 images captured by the Viking orbiters in the 1980s. The view from space as you approach Mars in Warframe is essentially the same, with a few Grineer ships, asteroids and a moon thrown in for added drama.

Thanks to the many NASA rovers observing Mars, the Red Planet is the most thoroughly explored planetary surface apart from the Earth. Curiosity has captured plenty of images of the rocky mountainside terrain around Aeolis Mons on Mars, better known by the name Mount Sharp. The image below showcases the formations at the base, just before Curiosity started climbing the mount, undeterred by a broken wheel. The range of colouration in the rocks, as well as the geological layers are well represented in Warframe’s maps of Mars. The lighting condition in both the NASA image as well as the Warframe version of Mars are similar to the lighting conditions seen on Earth, and not the thin, yellowish atmosphere of Mars.

In late 2016, Curiosity captured a series of images of layered rock formations in the Murray Buttes region of Mars, using its MastCam. Winds first deposited the sandstone and then eroded away the deposits, resulting in the formations seen by the rover. The Warframe maps of Mars contain similar layered formations, featuring a unique Grineer Settlement Tileset with equipment adapted to the arid environment. The Tenno running through Mars may find themselves attacked by exotic local life forms.

Phobos

Phobos is named after the Greek god, and literally means “fear”. A number of NASA spacecraft have observed the misshapen moon of Mars, including Viking I, the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The images captured by the spacecraft show a tortured alien terrain, including striations radiating outwards from the Stickney crater and large boulders that dot the surface. The Stickney crater is almost half the average diameter of the moon, and the event that led to its creation is believed to have nearly destroyed the moon. While not peering into the depths of space, the Hubble Space Telescope turns its gaze closer home, and in one of the observations runs of Mars, Phobos came along and photobombed the series of images.

Phobos is one of the few unlockable moons in Warframe, the others are Europa and Lua. The missions take place in the notable craters on the pockmarked surface of the malformed moon. Many of the craters are named after famous astronomers, including Roche, Shklovsky and Sharpless. Stickney is named after the wife of the astronomer who discovered the moon, Asaph Hall. Two craters, Gulliver and Skyresh are named after characters in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Another map, named Monolith is a shout out to an unusually large boulder that casts a long, straight shadow, photographed in the middle of the Stickney crater by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor.

Phobos imaged by Mariner 9. Credit: NASA.

Ceres

Ceres is a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, in orbit around the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. The Dawn spacecraft by NASA is the first mission to explore a dwarf planet. One of the most stunning observations by Dawn was a series of mysterious bright spots on the surface. Proposed explanations included salts, frozen lakes, geysers and cryovolcanoes. Conspiracy theorists had plenty of fodder for their speculations, as the images were considered to be additional evidence of alien settlements. Images obtained from an especially close observation run on Ceres showed that the bright spots actually consisted of a number of smaller bright spots, but their nature remained a mystery. Remnants of an ocean are suspected to be below the icy surface of Ceres. The dwarf planet has been imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope as well.

The Grineer are in control of Ceres in Warframe, and their presence has made the dwarf planet one of the most toxic and hazardous environments in the solar system. There are pools of poisenous liquids pouring out of pipes, flames, broken vents of hot steams, and robotic arms with laser cutters. There are still the enemy mobs to reckon with, as well as the random lightning that can strikes that make no difference between friends and foes. The Galleons of the Grineer are constructed in this planet strategically located at the centre of the solar system. The ship building activities shrouds the planet in a noxious cloud of industrial gasses.

Ceres in Warframe.

Jupiter

Jupiter, along with its ring system and moons have been explored by a number of NASA missions. The Voyager probes, Cassini, and New Horizons all used the gravitational tug of the most massive planet in the solar system, to get into their intended trajectories for explorations deeper into the solar system. The Galileo spacecraft from an orbit around the gas giant, studied the atmosphere, the polar aurora, the great red spot, and the lightning in the upper atmosphere. The most breathtaking images of Jupiter and its surroundings have however, been captured by Juno. The JunoCam imaging instrument on board, was designed as a way for the space agency to increase engagement with the general public. NASA mostly posts only the raw images captured by the camera, allowing the image processing community and citizen scientists to do as they please with the images. The results are stunning.

The missions in Warframe is a great way to familiarise yourself with the many moons of Jupiter, including Adrastea, Elara, Metis, Io, Themisto, Callisto, Amalthea, Ananke, Thebe, Carpo and Carme. The Tileset of the planet is unique, and features a city located high in the clouds of the Jovian atmosphere. The screaming winds and the almost fluid gas formations are represented well, and any time you are outdoors, you get a sense of the extreme wind speed and the turbulent atmosphere on the gas giant. Another moon of Jupiter, Europa, is unlockable, and has its own dedicated set of maps.

Europa

Europa is an icy world, likely to have a global subsurface ocean. This makes it a prime candidate for finding microbial life elsewhere in the solar system, and is an object of interest for future deep space missions. Two NASA missions have explored Europa, in brief flybys, Voyager 2 and Galileo. These missions only provided tantalising glimpses, showing a fractured terrain and a lack of craters, indicating a geologically active moon. The Hubble Space Telescope spotted evidence of water vapour near the south pole of Europa in 2013, and in 2017, directly imaged what are suspected to be plumes of water jetting out of the surface. If these plumes exist, it would provide easy access to the subsurface ocean, preventing the need for drilling and deploying underwater drones to check for life.

The best way to look for life on Europa, is to actually land a probe or manned missions on the surface. NASA researchers have studied Europa to understand the kind of tools and instruments that exploration of the surface would require. The striations along the surface, called lineae, are a prime location for a future mission to search for life. These cracks are believed to be filling with material from the interiors of the moon. The lineae would be a good place to look for bio-markers. It is because of studies like this, that scientists know what the surface of Europa would look like, and how Jupiter would appear in its sky.

The presence of a thin atmosphere made up mostly of oxygen, as well as water in the subsurface ocean makes Europa an important location for any solar system wide permanent presence effort. The local resources available on the moon make it a good candidate for a refuelling station for missions to the outer planets. In Warframe, the missions in Europa primarily takes place in an icy terrain among the ruins of a vast, crashed spaceship. The Tenno have to run through damaged corridors that might not be level or correctly aligned. There are also underground areas, with ice tunnels. The Corpus equipment seen in the surroundings has been adapted to the cold environments. Digital Extremes has explained the crafting of the Ice Planet Tileset in detail on the Warframe website, along with cool concept art.

Europa. Image: Digital Extremes.

Saturn

While the Pioneer 11 and Voyager probes have executed flybys of Saturn, the Cassini-Huygens mission was instrumental in unlocking several secrets of the gas giant, as well as raising questions for subsequent missions to answer. The mission was a collaboration between NASA, ESA and ASI, the Italian Space Agency. Cassini explored the hexagonal jet streams around the north pole of Saturn, found plumes of water erupting from the surface of Enceladus, and observed features in the ring system known as propellers.

Jets of water on Enceladus photographed by Cassini. Image: NASA.

Cassini explored the “Yin-Yang” moon Iapetus with its bright and dark regions, the “Death Star” moon Mimas, with the unusually large Herschel crater, as well as Daphnis, the “waverider” moon that creates long ripples in the Keeler gap that stretch out for kilometres. After observing the planet for thirteen years, Cassini ended its mission with a science rich dive into the Saturnian atmosphere. The spacecraft was running out of fuel, and NASA could not maintain control of the spacecraft for much longer. There was a possibility that Cassini would drift into and contaminate one of the moons that could harbour life, such as Titan or Enceladus. Although Cassini ended its life by becoming a shooting star in the skies of Saturn, the spacecraft has beamed back so much data that the mission is expected to provide inputs for research for at least another sixty years.

The missions in Warframe take place in the many moons of Saturn that Cassini helped us get familiar with. These include Tethys, Anthe, Titan, Pandora and Enceladus. There is a mission in the Keeler gap, a division in the ring system that is home to tiny Daphnis. The spacecraft is celebrated within the game as well. One of the nodes in Saturn is called Cassini. Unfortunately, the gameplay does not take place within the atmosphere of Saturn, as is the case with Jupiter. Instead, they mostly take place on Grineer Galleons or asteroids. However, Saturn hangs in the skies outside the windows of the enemy ships, and a beautiful view of the planet is offered from within the personal spaceships of the players as well, when parked in orbit around Saturn.

Uranus

NASA’s Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have made a close approach to Uranus. Eleven previously unobserved moons were discovered because of the spacecraft. The planet has a ring system, and a total of 27 known moons. The planet is also unique in the solar system as it spins in an axis that is almost perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the Sun. Uranus was the first planet to be discovered with the aid of a telescope, by astronomer William Herschel in 1781. The Herschel crater on Mimas, the “Death Star” moon of Saturn, is named after this astronomer.

Warframe has a pretty unique environment for Uranus, known as the Grineer Sealab tileset. The missions take place in the moons of Uranus, including Ariel, Desdemona, Ophelia, Umbriel, Caliban, Titania, Stephano and Rosalind. The missions switch between corridors and underwater environments. The underwater environments have six degrees of freedom, similar to the missions in free space. The underwater environment is pretty picturesque, despite the toxic sewage outlets, mines and dangerous local life forms.

Neptune

The Voyager 2 mission by NASA is the only spacecraft to have visited Neptune. Neptune is an ice giant, just like Uranus. Neptune has the highest velocity winds in the solar system, with the methane clouds moving at speeds in excess of 2,000 kilometers per hour. The storm systems on the planet can contain entire Earths within them. The planet has thirteen known moons, and maybe even a fourteenth one, as well as a ring system.

There are a number of various environments to explore on Neptune within Warframe, including the Corpus Gas City and Ice Planet Tilesets. The planet is primarily controlled by the Corpus faction. Similar to most of the other planets, the missions take place on the moons. Missions are available on Proteus, Sao, Despina, Galatea, Triton, Nereid, Psamathe, Neso and Larissa.

Pluto

Only one spacecraft has studied Pluto up close, and that is NASA’s New Horizons mission. The spacecraft made some surprising observations of the dwarf planet, and the accompanying moons. Pluto has a geologically active surface, methane ice that forms a bladed terrain, and signs of ancient liquid water flows. Such signs of flowing water were previously only seen on Earth, Mars, and the Saturnian moon, Titan. New Horizons also captured images of the 1,000 kilometre wide nitrogen glacier known as Sputnik. The largest known glacier in the solar system is on a dwarf planet. Researchers have combined the imagery captured by New Horizons, along with elevation maps, to create flybys over the surface of Pluto and Charon. These flybys simulate a trajectory closer to the surface than the one actually taken by the spacecraft.

The missions in the Pluto system, there are no missions on Styx and Nix, moons of Pluto. There are missions on Charon and Hydra. Kerberos is called Cerberus within the game. Most of the other missions are named after people and places from the underworld in the Roman and Grecian mythologies. These include Hades, as well as two of the five rivers, Oceanum and Acheron. The gameplay on Pluto takes place mostly in an icy environment, and the planet is controlled by the Corpus faction. Despite the distance from the Sun, trees and some vegetation can be seen on Pluto.

Eris

Eris is one of the dwarf planets in the solar system, and is so distant from the Sun that it takes 557 years to complete one orbit. Eris was initially considered by NASA as a tenth planet, which kickstarted a series of events that resulted in Pluto not being considered a planet anymore, due to a new definition of a “planet” by the International Astronomical Union. The distant, icy world has not been visited by a spacecraft so far, but has been observed from afar through telescopes. The actual images of the object that humans have obtained are very blurry. Eris also has a tiny moon, known as Dysnomia.

Image: NASA/Caltech.

The missions on Eris do not take place on the surface, and instead take place on Corpus ships that have been taken over by the Infested, a faction of fast moving biological abominations. The missions are reminiscent of various diseases or disease causing agents. For once, the mission names are a treat for parasitologists as against space enthusiasts or planetary scientists.

Sedna

Sedna is at a greater distance from the Sun than even Eris, and takes a staggering 11,400 Earth years to make one trip around the Sun. No spacecraft has visited the dwarf planet, and even the images available from ground based telescopes just consist of a few pixels at most. Most of the scientific understanding of this distant world is through spectroscopic analysis. The surface of the dwarf planet is red, almost as red as Mars. There is water and methane ice on the extremely cold surface. In an artist’s conception of the surface of Sedna, the entire solar system is visible in a portion of the sky.

Image: NASA, ESA, Adolf Schaller

Warframe shows an large number of asteroids near Sedna, and retains the reddish hue of the planet. A mixture of Grineer Tilesets are used for the dwarf planet, including the shipyard, the galleon the sealab and the asteroid base. The Grineer outpost at the very edge of the solar system, allows the faction to explore farther into space. The shipyard maps show a surface with flowing liquid water. A global subsurface ocean made up of liquid water is just about possible on Sedna, due to heat from radioactive decay.

While the NASA missions have explored the planets in detail, providing stunning images and increasing scientific understanding. The star here is Voyager 2, which is the only spacecraft to have visited Uranus and Neptune, before embarking on a voyage into interstellar space. Warframe allows you to get familiar with the names of these remote environments, and a few hours in, you are likely to be convinced that that is what the alien worlds actually look like. Along with getting familiar with the celestial objects themselves, exploring the locations and features provide insights to the history of science, the important findings of astronomers, and various mythologies from around the world.

An Archwing mission at Earth.
The “Blue Marble”. Image: Apollo 17/NASA
Earth in Warframe
Phobos photobombing Mars. Image: Hubble/NASA/ESA/Z Levay (STScI)
Just a cave on Mars.
A true colour image of the Murray Buttes region on Mars. Image: Curiosity/NASA.
The “monolith” boulder in the Stickney crater on Phobos. Image: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.
Phobos with streaks radiating from the large Stickney crater in the lower left corner. Image: Mars Reconnaissance Orbite/NASA
Ceres. Image: Hubble/NASA/ESA/J Parker.
The Orokin Tower Tileset in Warframe.
An artist’s impression of water plumes erupting from Europa. Image: NASA/ESA/K Retherford (SWRI)
The white storms are known as the “String of Pearls”. Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt, Seán Doran
A cloud city on Jupiter
Europa’s fractured surface. Image: Voyager 2/NASA.
The lineae on Europa. Image: Galileo/NASA.
Tunnels in the Ice Planet Tileset.
“Jupiter Blues”. Image: Juno/NASA/Gerald Eichstädt, Seán Doran
The Great Red Spot on Jupiter. Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Mik Petter
Smoke rises from the ruins of a gigantic ship on Europa.
Iapetus, the “Yin-Yang” moon of Saturn. Image: Cassini/NASA.
Mimas, the “Death Star” moon of Saturn. Image: Cassini/NASA.
Daphnis causing ripples in the Keeler gap.
One of the hydrocarbon seas on Titan. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell.
Hexagonal jet streams at the north pole of Saturn. Image: Cassini/NASA.
The Santos Dumont propeller at Saturn. Image: Cassini/NASA.
A holographic projection of the solar system.
Uranus. Image: Voyager 2/NASA.
The Grineer Sealab Tileset on Uranus.
An artist’s impression of Sedna. Image: NASA.
Sedna is near an asteroid field in Warframe.
The arrow is pointing at Sedna. Image: Samuel Oschin Telescope/NASA/Caltech
An older version of the Star Map in Warframe.
Aditya Madanapalle

Aditya Madanapalle

An avid reader of the magazine, who ended up working at Digit after studying journalism, game design and ancient runes. When not egging on arguments in the Digit forum, can be found playing with LEGO sets meant for 9 to 14-year-olds.