LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – The final frontier has rarely seemed closer than this – at least actually.
Researchers at one of Switzerland’s top universities are releasing open-source beta software Tuesday that allows virtual journeys through the universe, including the International Space Station, to the Moon, Saturn or exoplanets, galaxies and beyond .
The program – called the Virtual Reality Universe Project, or VIRUP – pulls together what researchers call the largest data set in the universe to create a three-dimensional, panoramic view of space.
Software engineers, astrophysicists and experimental museum experts at the cole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, or EPFL, have come together to create the virtual map, which can be described as personal VR gear, immersion systems like panoramic cinemas with 3D glasses, planetarium-like dome screens can be seen through. , or just for two-dimensional viewing on a PC.
“The novelty of this project was putting all the data sets into one framework, when you can see the universe at different scales – around us, around the Earth, around the Solar System, at the level of the Milky Way, around the universe. Time to see through and to the beginning – what we call the Big Bang,” said Jean-Paul Kneib, director of EPFL’s Astrophysics Lab.
Think of a kind of Google Earth – but for the sake of the universe. Computer algorithms churn out tens of terabytes of data and produce images that can appear close to a meter (about three feet) or nearly infinitely far away—as if you sit back and look at the entire observable universe. .
VIRUP is accessible for free to all – although it requires at least a computer and is best viewed with VR equipment or 3D capabilities. It aims to attract a wide range of visitors, both the scientists seeking to visualize the data they continue to collect and a wider public seeking to explore the sky virtually.
Still a work in progress, for now, the beta version cannot be run on Mac computers. Downloading software and content may seem daunting for even the least skilled computer users, and the space on the computer will count. The wide-to-public version of the content is a reduced size version that can be quantified in gigabytes, a kind of best highlight. Astronomy buffs with more PC memory may choose to download more.
The project gathers information from eight databases that count at least 4,500 known exoplanets, tens of millions of galaxies, millions of space objects in total, and more than 1.5 billion light sources from the Milky Way alone. But when it comes to potential data, the sky is literally the limit: Future databases could include asteroids in our solar system or objects like nebulae and pulsars further in the Milky Way.
To be sure, VR games and representations already exist: Cosmos-gazing apps on tablets allow mapping of the night sky with zoomed-in close-ups of heavenly bodies; Software like SpaceEngine from Russia offers views of the universe; NASA has done some small VR scopes of space.
But the EPFL team says VIRUP is much further and broader: data is pulled from sources such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in the United States and the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to help the Milky Way and its Planck mission observe the universe’s first light. Can go , all brought together in a one-stop-shop for the most comprehensive data set ever.
And there’s more to come: When the 14-country telescope project known as the Square Kilometer Array begins to crunch the information, the data could be counted in petabytes—that’s 1,000 terabytes, or 1 million. is gigabyte.
Strap on VR goggles, and it’s a sad feeling looking at the moon — seemingly the size of a giant beach ball and floating large enough to hold — like the horizon from the sunny side to the dark side of the lunar surface. rotates.
Then speed beyond the Solar System and swing by Saturn, then over the Milky Way, swirling and shining and hot – with the exoplanets highlighted in red. And still far away, imagine floating through tiny points of light that represent galaxies as if the viewer is an unintentionally large giant floating in space.
“It’s a very efficient way to get at all the different scales that compose our universe, and it’s completely unique,” says EPFL astrophysicist Yves Revaz. “A very important part of this project is that it is the first step towards treating very large data sets to come.”
Whole galaxies seem to be linked together by stars or filaments of light, almost like a representation of the neural connections that connect clusters of light, like galaxies. For one of the greatest photographs of all, here is a colorful view of the Cosmic Microwave Background – the radiation emanating from the Big Bang.
“We actually started this project because I was working on a three-dimensional mapping project of the universe and was always a little disappointed with the 2D visualization on my screen, which wasn’t very meaningful,” Kneib said in a room. The non-descript lab building features a panoramic screen, a half-dome cinema with bean-bag seating, and a hard-floor space for virtual-reality excursions.
“It’s true that by showing the universe in 3D, by showing these filaments, by showing these clusters of galaxies that are great concentrations of matter, you really get a feel for what the universe is,” he said.