ESA Releases Mobile Game to Celebrate Asteroid Day

Because why not?

Screenshot from "AIM -- Space Challenge."

Asteroid Day is finally here!

For the second year in a row, the European Space Agency is spreading awareness about the threat asteroids pose to the safety of life on Earth, along with more lighthearted topics like the science of space rocks. But the whole day really centers around the doom and gloom of humanity’s demise at the hands of an asteroid pummeling into the planet.

There are several ways you can celebrate Asteroid Day, but one unexpected way is a new mobile game the ESA just dropped, called AIM Space Challenge, available for free on both the Apple Store and Google Play. It makes for a very strange experience, to say the least.

The game essentially doubles as a promotional tool for ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), the overall goal of which is to study asteroid composition and movement through an orbital satellite fitted with its own lander. There’s a second part, too, that smashes another satellite straight into the surface and measures the impact to better understand the internal structure of the asteroid.

It’s this latter part of AIM that’s crucial. Measuring impact data would give scientists a clue into what kind of extrapolated force might be required to change an asteroid’s trajectory, or destroy it outright. And if Earth is ever threatened by a seriously big rock, we’ll need to know exactly what kind of firepower we’ll need to protect ourselves — if that’s even possible.

God I hope so.

Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

To be honest, I’m not quite sure I learned anything about asteroids through the ESA’s game. The setting is a future Earth set in 2500. A large asteroid threatens to annihilate us all. Unfortunately, future civilizations totally neglected to research the nature of asteroid impacts, so humanity is fucked. EXCEPT THERE’S TIME TRAVEL TECHNOLOGY IN THE FUTURE. You, as the protagonist, remember that early 21st century researchers were moving forwarding with a little thing called AIM — so you decide to go back to the past and do whatever it takes to make AIM work and send that data back to the future in order to save the world.

LOL nope.

Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

Basically, you are the nerdy scientist version of Bruce Willis in Armageddon. And as such, your mission is a lot less badass and a lot more tedious.

The game feels a lot like SimCity (heyo!): You’re tasked with constructing a bunch of buildings that will help move asteroid research forward, as well as infrastructure essential towards making asteroid research missions work. This is how you earn money. And you’re tasked with keeping those buildings working, while also playing a bunch of weird mini-games that teach you … well, they keep you more or less entertained.

By far, I had the most trouble simply deciding what my space center should be called. I ran through a few choices:

  • Aqua Santa (after Inverse’s favorite Brooklyn spot to GAI)
  • Pork Slap
  • Fruitopia
  • Sauvage HQ

I went with Sauvage HQ. Great name, too.


Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

Next up, I was tasked with building a headquarters, an Exhibition Center, an R&D Center, and a Flag Pole. I managed to make a little money and earn my first patch — whatever that really means.


Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

Of course, this doesn’t exactly translate towards much progress.

Not pictured: a safe future for Earth.

Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

In any case, the game tries to liven things up by putting you through several different kinds of mini-games — all space-themed and sort of (but not really) related to asteroid research and AIM. The first one I played was also maybe the least fun:

I mean, sure.

Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

It’s literally just swiping your finger between two points.

Don't ask me what wifi has to do with it.

Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

And if you mess up, you get to see a trail of black marbles go apeshit.

Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

“OKAY COOL,” you’re probably saying. “WHAT’S NEXT THOUGH?”

Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

This game is actually terrible. You’re often forced to navigate your satellite through areas in which you will get hit by rocks and die. There’s no getting around them. And that’s if the touchscreen manages to work correctly (often times you’ll find your ship inexplicably move like a caffeinated bee and just zip off to the other side of the screen without warning).

Seriously this is worse than trying to make those impossible jumps in *Mega Man X6."

Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

The last mini-game I played was confusing at first, but once you actually understand what’s going on, you actually learn something. Basically, the player has to point a satellite towards the asteroid, the sun, and the Earth at three separate instances. The lesson here is that the AIM satellite is studying data from an extraterrestrial rock and needs to make sure that data gets back to those us here on Earth, all the while relying on the sun’s rays as a primary source of energy.

Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

Not pictured: how bad I was the first time I played this.

Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"

One of the most unexpected parts of the game was the soundtrack — a strange mix of digital noises that veered from ambient to jarring, depending on who you asked. Within my office:

“What are these sick electronic soundscapes?” exclaimed Sean Hutchinson — someone who effuses encouragement without fail.

“What is this terrible electronic noise?” grumbled the resident Inverse curmudgeon Sarah Sloat.

Eventually, I was able to push my progress up to the second benchmark. Unfortunately, the game utilizes an awful “wait” system where every game or task requires the player to let a certain amount of time run off before they can collect their monetary earnings. It’s too easy to end up in a situation where you have almost nothing to do but twiddle your thumbs and let the timer run down.

At this point, I wasted 500 coins planting a pair of dumb trees that have nothing to do with space. Rather than choose to wait things out, I decided my time at work might be better spent doing, you know, work. Here’s what the final scene looked like:

Sauvage HQ at its peak.

Screenshot from "AIM — Space Challenge."

Overall, AIM Space Challenge perhaps gives people who know next-to-nothing about AIM or planetary defense an excuse or an incentive to want to learn more, but don’t expect the game itself to really teach you a whole lot about those things. You’re given plenty of opportunities to jump from the game into other parts of the ESA’s website to dig into the details yourself — and certainly you’ll find a lot of interesting information in those parts.

If you choose to play AIM Space Challenge, however, you’ll be rewarded with some pretty awesome (and totally unwarranted) words of encouragement.

Aw, shucks guys!

Screenshot from "AIM - Space Challenge"
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