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Virtual reality universe unveiled

Foreground out of focus with man in high-tech goggles, background is images of the virtual reality universe.
In this image, software engineer Hadrien Gurnel is exploring a 3D map of the universe via virtual reality. The Virtual Reality Universe Project at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland builds, in real-time, a virtual universe based on current data. Image via Phys.org/ Laurent Gillieron/ Keystone via AP.

Fewer than 600 people, of Earth’s billions, have traveled to space so far. So it’s likely that you personally won’t get to visit the International Space Station, or, say, Mars. And none of us will travel so far as another galaxy, or far enough away in space (and therefore far enough back in time) to witness the early universe, or even the Big Bang itself. But now you can do all those things virtually.

This week (October 12, 2021), researchers at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne released a beta version of their Virtual Reality Universe Project, which they call VIRUP. Its open-source beta software contains what these scientists say is the largest data set of the universe.

The team used this data to create 3D panoramic landscapes of space that you can fly through, if you have the right gear. One note: The beta version can’t yet run on a Mac computer.

Virtual Reality Universe Project

You can view this free map of the universe with virtual reality gear or 3D glasses, on planetarium-like dome screens, or on your regular computer or television screen for a standard view. From the data, researchers created a 20-minute movie, Archaeology of Light: An Immersive Journey Through Space and Time, which you can watch below. You can also view it in your choice of 4K, VR180, or 360 degrees. In the video, the detailed 3D model of the universe begins at Earth and voyages out through our solar system to the Milky Way, then all the way to the cosmic web and the relic light of the Big Bang.

The sources of the virtual reality universe map

The computer algorithms used to create the Virtual Reality Universe Project pull in terabytes of data – a terabyte is about a trillion bytes of data – gathered from telescopes worldwide. The goal is to produce images of the entire observable universe. Team member Jean-Paul Kneib said in a statement:

The novelty of this project was putting all the data set available into one framework, when you can see the universe at different scales – nearby us, around the Earth, around the solar system, at the Milky Way level, to see through the universe and time up to the beginning – what we call the Big Bang.

They gathered information from eight databases that include the 4,500 known exoplanets and tens of millions of galaxies. VIRUP uses data from a wide variety of sources including the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Gaia mission, the Planck mission and more.

The map is still a work in progress. In the future the team plans to add databases that contain asteroids, nebulae, pulsars and other space objects. When the Square Kilometer Array comes online in 2029, it will eventually include data that can be counted in the petabytes (1,000 terabytes or 1 million gigabytes). Yves Revaz of EPFL said:

A very important part of this project is that it’s a first step toward treating much larger data sets which are coming.

To learn more, go to the project’s documentation page.

Or read “Archaeology of Light” from EPFL.

Silhouette of man against large oval with white, multiply-connected lines and bright nodes.
A man peers up at a dome displaying the cosmic web of galaxies. Image via Phys.org/ Laurent Gillieron/ Keystone via AP.

For scientists and the public

The researchers hope their Virtual Reality Universe Project is helpful to anyone wishing to see the universe in a different light. The software is available for free, and both the curious public and scientists doing research may find immersing themselves in our cosmos to be a useful tool. Kneib said:

We actually started this project because I was working on a three-dimensional mapping project of the universe and was always a little frustrated with the 2D visualization on my screen, which wasn’t very meaningful. It’s true that by showing the universe in 3D, by showing these filaments, by showing these clusters of galaxies which are large concentrations of matter, you really realize what the universe is.

Man in shadow stands in front of round image of Earth, ISS and starry sky.
A man stares up at a planetarium view of the International Space Station and a starry sky. The Virtual Reality Universe Project is available on multiple formats. Image via Phys.org/ Laurent Gillieron/ Keystone via AP.

Bottom line: Researchers have amassed terabytes of data from a slew of telescopes to create the Virtual Reality Universe Project, a map of our cosmos.

Via Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne

Via EPFL

Via Phys.org

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