Help Hubble, win an iPad
It's not a PC game as such, but it does involve your PC and there's an element of competition, here's something to occupy a few hours of free time between now and the end of May. Take those sharp powers of observation and image analysis you've honed through play and put them to some sort of productive use.
Join the hunt for Hubble's Hidden Treasures. You can help to find new galactic objects, make some of those of colourful 'artists impressions' pictures of nebula that grace box art and maybe win an iPad too. Not bad for what is, to all intents and appearances, a browser based game. It'll help kill time until the next Mass Effect 3 DLC comes out.
The problem facing NASA and ESA, who jointly run the Hubble program, is that the telescope has taken literally millions of shots over 22 years in orbit. As a result, only a relative handful have actually been scrutinised by scientists. A couple of years ago, Hubble teamed up with the crowdsourced extra-terrestrial identification project Galaxy Zoo to put some of the unseen pictures up in front of human eyes. The problem that remains that not all of the radiowave snapshots have been processed into visual images.
With its latest initiative, the organisation is encouraging hobbiest astronomers to access its raw data and use professional tools to process it into useful pictures. It's upping the incentive to do so by offering an iPad to the person who finds and creates the most illuminating image.
There's two competitions running concurrently. The more straightforward one is for those with more limited astronomical knowledge and photo editing powers. All you have to do is enter the Hubble Legacy Archive, find a dataset and use a simple online picture editor to turn it into a 'photograph' like the ones you see on the cover of science books about space. Post the result to Hubble's Flickr group, and you can win an iPod Touch.
The second competition is a bit more challenging, and involves downloading the same data as a FITS file and then using a photo editing package like PhotoShop or Gimp to turn it into one of those cover shots. The best will be shown off on spacetelescope.org, and the very best will win an iPad.
Neither option is quite as newbie friendly as Galaxy Zoo though, and if you're fresh to astronomy there's a chance you'll probably fail at the point where the system requires you to know what object it is you're looking for before you look for it - although fond memories of Elite might help here. Give it a go - if nothing else, it's still a small insight into the more mundane parts of the lives of rock star scientists Dr Brian Cox or Brian May.