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Big data, big data: Swiss unveil the universe’s VR software

The final frontier rarely seemed any closer than that, at least virtually. Researchers from one of Switzerland’s top universities release open source beta software that enables virtual tours across the cosmos, including to the International Space Station, beyond the Moon, Saturn or exoplanets, to the over galaxies and beyond.

The program, called the Virtual Reality Universe Project, or VIRUP, brings together what researchers call the largest dataset in the universe to create three-dimensional panoramic visualizations of space.

Software engineers, astrophysicists and experts in experimental museology from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, or EPFL, came together to concoct the virtual map that can be viewed through individual VR equipment, immersion systems like the panoramic cinema with 3D glasses, planetarium-type dome screens, or simply on a PC for two-dimensional viewing.

“The novelty of this project was to bring together all the available datasets in one frame, where you can see the universe at different scales – near us, around the Earth, around the solar system, at the level of the Way. Milky Way, to see through the universe and time to the beginning – what we call the Big Bang, ”said Jean-Paul Kneib, Director of the Astrophysics Laboratory at EPFL.

Think of a kind of Google Earth, but for the universe. Computer algorithms produce terabytes of data and produce images that can appear a meter (about three feet) or nearly ad infinitum, as if you are sitting down and looking at the entire observable universe.

VIRUP is available to everyone for free, although it requires at least one computer and is best viewed with VR gear or 3D capabilities. It aims to attract a wide range of visitors, both scientists looking to visualize the data they continue to collect and a large audience looking to virtually explore the skies.

Still a work in progress, at this time the beta cannot be run on a Mac computer. Downloading software and content can seem expensive to less skilled computer users, and space – on a computer – will count. The consumer version of the content is a scaled-down version that can be quantified in gigabytes, sort of a best-of. Astronomy enthusiasts with more PC memory might choose to download more.

Hadrien Gurnel, software engineer at EPFL’s Experimental Museology Laboratory, explores with 3D glasses the most detailed 3D map of the universe (AP)

The project brings together information from eight databases that include at least 4,500 known exoplanets, tens of millions of galaxies, hundreds of millions of space objects in total, and more than 1.5 billion light sources from the world alone. Milky Way. 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 galaxy.

Certainly, VR games and representations already exist: applications for observing the cosmos on tablets make it possible to map the night sky, with zoomed-in close-ups of celestial bodies; software like SpaceEngine from Russia offers visuals of the universe; NASA has created smaller VR expanses of space.

But the EPFL team says VIRUP goes much further and broader: data drawn from sources like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in the United States and the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to map the Milky Way and its Planck mission to observe the first light of the universe, all brought together in a single window for the most comprehensive datasets to date.

And there’s more to come: When the 14-country telescope project known as the Square Kilometer Array begins to extract information, the data could be counted in petabytes, or 1,000 terabytes or 1 million gigabytes.

Put on the VR glasses, and it’s a trippy feeling to see the Moon – apparently the size of a giant beach ball and floating close enough to hold – as the horizon turns from the sunny side to the dark side of the surface. lunar.

Then, race past the solar system and pass through Saturn, then over the Milky Way, swirling and blinking and lifting – with exoplanets highlighted in red. And much further still, imagine floating through tiny dots of light that represent galaxies as if the viewer were an disproportionately large giant floating in space.

“It’s a very efficient way to visit all the different scales that make up our universe, and it’s quite unique,” explains Yves Revaz, astrophysicist at EPFL. “A very important part of this project is that this is a first step towards processing much larger datasets to come. “

Entire galaxies appear to be linked together by strands or filaments of light, almost like a representation of neural connections, which connect clusters of light like galaxies. For one of the largest images of all, there’s a colorful visualization of the microwave cosmic background – the radiation left behind by 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 frustrated with the 2D visualization on my screen, which wasn’t very meaningful,” Kneib said, in some lab building. which houses a panoramic screen, a half-dome cinema with ottoman seats, and hard floor space for virtual reality excursions.

“It is true that by showing the universe in 3D, by showing these filaments, by showing these clusters of galaxies which are large concentrations of matter, we really realize what the universe is”, a he added.

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