Scientists Basically Just Created ‘Google Earth for the Universe’

by Jennifer Shea

Researchers in Switzerland have created the new Virtual Reality Universe Project (VIRUP). The project aims to take visitors on a virtual trip to the International Space Station, the Moon, Saturn, exoplanets, other galaxies or even the early universe. It’s similar to Google Earth, via which people can tour locations around our planet.

VIRUP draws on what researchers say is the most comprehensive data set of the universe. It then makes panoramic, three-dimensional visualizations of outer space, the Associated Press reports. It took the combined efforts of astrophysicists, software engineers and experimental museology experts at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne to bring the project to fruition.

Viewers can experience their project through personal VR gear. Or they can sample it through immersion systems such as panoramic cinema with 3D glasses. It is also available two-dimensionally, on a computer screen.

Scientists Say It’s Like Google Earth for the Universe

VIRUP allows viewers to see images of outer space from as seemingly close up as three feet away. Or, if you want to pull back and look at galaxies or the whole universe, in the far distance.

“The novelty of this project was putting all the data set available into one framework, when you can see the universe at different scales,” EPFL astrophysics lab director Jean-Paul Kneib told the AP. “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.”

The project is available for free to anyone who has a computer. Unfortunately, the beta version won’t work on a Mac. But the project is still under construction.

Another temporary downside: right now, the version that’s open to the broader public is basically just a scaled-down highlights reel. Also, the software and content can take up a lot of space on your computer. That’s even if you have one that does run the beta version.

Project Draws from Eight Databases

VIRUP uses eight databases with vast troves of information. They include the Sloan Digital Sky Survey from the U.S. and the European Space Agency’s Gaia and Planck missions. (The latter are designed to map the Milky Way and to study the cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang, respectively.)

But the researchers say that’s just the beginning. There’s also a 14-country telescope project, the Square Kilometer Array, that promises to pull in millions of gigabytes of data.

“A very important part of this project is that it’s a first step toward treating much larger data sets which are coming,” EPFL astrophysicist Yves Revaz said.

Kneib told the AP that VIRUP was born out of his frustration with 2D visualizations of the universe on his computer screen. Compared to three-dimensional maps, he said, those aren’t “very meaningful.”

“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,” Kneib said.