Cloudless skies with virtual stargazing

A new immersive, virtual reality astronomy experience developed by Edinburgh astronomers could be set to make clear-sky stargazing a reality for anyone with an Internet connection.

Immersive astronomyMAIN

The sky above Edinburgh as seen through Stellarium software. Users of the new headset will be able to immerse themselves in a clear view of the night sky. Image Credit: A.Lawrence

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Virtual reality software developed by a team of Edinburgh astronomers is set to transform the way people explore the night sky.

The system, provisionally named StarSightVR, utilises Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets to give users an immersive stargazing experience.

It was demonstrated this week at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales.

“I have always loved showing the stars to people,” says astronomer and project leader Alastair Bruce, “but now I can guarantee perfect cloudless skies, and show the Universe to people all round the world, while they stay in the comfort of their own homes.”

Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets are due on sale early 2016, primarily for 3D immersive gaming. But Bruce, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, saw the potential for using the technology to encourage public interest in astronomy.

“I decided the way ahead was to combine the headset with Stellarium, because that software is very popular as well as really good, and what’s more it’s open source, which means we could get the benefit to the maximum number of people,” he says.

“We love showing people the stars and explaining what they are looking at, here on the rooftop at the Royal Observatory (Edinburgh), so we thought, why not use the Oculus Rift to do that remotely?”

Bruce worked with his supervisor, Professor Andy Lawrence, to apply for a grant from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

This gave them the means to buy test equipment and pay for a software engineer to adapt Stellarium to their purpose.

“It worked beautifully,” says Lawrence.

“We showed off an early version to people at the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April, and it just knocked their socks off.

You feel like you are really outside looking at the starry sky, but it’s even better.

You can see fainter stars, speed up the rotation of Earth, look at deep sky objects, and even take the ground away so you feel like you are seeing the stars from space.”

The duo plan to create and host group stargazing sessions over the Internet, led by an astronomer-presenter.

This would enable multiple users to log on and take part in sky tours with fellow stargazers in real time.

“Ideally we would run a StarSightVR show perhaps once a month”, says Lawrence, “but we don’t know yet how popular it would be, or how well it will scale up.

Our plan is to run a trial event or two and see how we go.”

Tania Johnston, STFC Public Engagement manager at The Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, says: “The new StarSightVR system has enormous potential. STFC is committed to diversity and inclusion, but I often deal with people who have conditions that limit their involvement with our work.

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So giving them access to such an incredible virtual reality astronomy experience – over the internet – could overcome some of those most fundamental barriers.”