Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

The foreground out of focus with man in high-tech goggles, the background are images of the virtual reality universe.
In this image, software engineer Hadrien Gurnel explores a 3D map of the universe via virtual reality. The Virtual Reality Universe project at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland builds a real-time 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 is likely that you will not personally visit the International Space Station, or for example Mars. And none of us will travel as 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 these things virtually.

This week (October 12, 2021), researchers at the Swiss 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 universe’s largest dataset.

The team used this data to create 3D panoramic landscapes in space that you can fly through if you have the right gear. Note: The Beta version cannot yet run on a Mac computer.

Virtual Reality Universe project

You can watch 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, scientists created a 20-minute film, Archeology of Light: An Immersive Journey Through Space and Time, which you can watch below. You can also see it in your choice of 4K, VR180 or 360 degrees. In the video, the detailed 3D model of the universe on Earth begins and travels out through our solar system to the Milky Way, then all the way to the cosmic web and the relic 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 – one terabyte is about a trillion bytes of data – collected from telescopes worldwide. The goal is to produce images of the entire observable universe. Team member Jean-Paul Kneib said in a statement:

The new thing about this project was to put all available datasets in one frame when you can see the universe on different scales – near 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 collected information from eight databases that include the 4,500 known exoplanets and tens of thousands of millions of galaxies. VIRUP uses data from a wide range of sources, including the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Gaia Mission, the Planck Mission and more.

The map is still in progress. In the future, the team plans to add databases containing asteroids, nebulae, pulsars and other space objects. When the square-kilometer array goes online in 2029, it will eventually contain data that can be counted in petabytes (1,000 terabytes or 1 million gigabytes). Yves Revaz from EPFL said:

A very important part of this project is that it is a first step towards processing much larger data sets that are coming.

To learn more, go to the project documentation page.

Or read “Archeology of Light” from EPFL.

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

For researchers and the general public

The researchers hope that their Virtual Reality Universe project is useful for anyone who wants to see the universe in a different light. The software is available for free, and both the curious public and scientists who are researching can find an immersion in our cosmos as 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 by the 2D visualization on my screen, which was not very meaningful. It is true that by showing the universe in 3D, by showing these filaments, by showing these clusters of galaxies that are large concentrations of matter, you really realize what the universe is.

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

Bottom line: Scientists have collected terabyte of data from a wide range 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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