Virtual reality offers an unprecedented look at the universe (and you can take a peek)

OCT 13, 2021

Software engineer Hadrien Gurnel uses a virtual reality helmet to explore the most detailed 3D map of the universe with the virtual reality software VIRUP — Virtual Reality Universe Project. It was developed by Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) scientists of the Laboratory of Astrophysics at EPFL’s Laboratory for Experimental Museology (eM+) in St-Sulpice near Lausanne, Switzerland.Laurent Gillieron / Keystone via AP

Researchers have released open-source beta software that allows people to make virtual visits through the cosmos. Imagine it as a sort of Google Earth for the entire universe.

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — The final frontier has rarely seemed closer than this — at least virtually.

Researchers at one of Switzerland’s top universities have released open-source beta software that allows people to make virtual visits through the cosmos — up to the International Space Station, past the Moon, Saturn or exoplanets, over galaxies and well beyond.

The program — called Virtual Reality Universe Project, or VIRUP — pulls together what the researchers call the largest data set of the universe to create three-dimensional, panoramic visualizations of space.

Software engineers, astrophysicists and experimental museology experts at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, or EPFL, put together the virtual map that can be viewed through individual VR gear — immersion systems like panoramic cinema with 3D glasses, planetarium-like dome screens or just on a PC for two-dimensional viewing.

“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,” said Jean-Paul Kneib, director of EPFL’s astrophysics lab.

Imagine it as a sort of Google Earth — only for the entire universe.

Computer algorithms churn up terabytes of data and produce images that can appear as close as about three feet or almost infinitely far away — as if you sit back and look at the entire observable universe.

VIRUP is accessible to everyone for free — though it requires at least a computer and is best visualized with VR equipment or 3D capabilities.

It aims to draw in a broad array of visitors — scientists looking to visualize the data they continue to collect and also a broad public seeking to explore the heavens virtually.

Still a work in progress, the beta version can’t be run on a Mac computer. Downloading the software and content might seem onerous for the least-skilled computer users, and space — on a computer — will count. The broader-public version of the content is a reduced-size version that can be quantified in gigabytes, a sort of best-of highlights. Astronomy buffs with more PC memory can download more.

The project assembles information from eight databases that count at least 4,500 known exoplanets, tens of millions of galaxies, hundreds of millions of space objects and more than 1.5 billion light sources from the Milky Way alone.

Future databases could include asteroids in our solar system or objects like nebulae and pulsars farther into the galaxy.

Even before this was released, cosmos-gazing apps on tablets already allowed for some mapping of the night sky, with zoom-in closeups. Software like SpaceEngine from Russia offers universe visuals. And NASA has done some smaller VR scopes of space.

But the EPFL team says VIRUP goes much farther and wider.

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

Strap on the VR goggles, and it’s a trippy feeling seeing the Moon — seemingly the size of a giant beach ball and floating close enough to hold — as the horizon rotates from the sunny side to the dark side of the lunar surface.

Speed out to beyond the solar system and swing by Saturn, then up above the Milky Way, swirling and flashing and heaving — with exoplanets highlighted in red.

Much farther out, imagine floating through small dots of light that represent galaxies as if the viewer were an unconscionably large giant floating in space.

“That is a very efficient way of visiting all the different scales that compose our universe, and that is completely unique,” says Yves Revaz, an EPFL astrophysicist. ”A very important part of this project is that it’s a first step toward treating much larger datasets, which are coming.”

Entire galaxies seem to be strung together by strands or filaments of light, almost like representation of neural connections, that link up clusters of light like galaxies. For one of the biggest pictures of all, there’s a colorful visualization of the Cosmic Microwave Background — the radiation left 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,” Kneib said. “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.