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New Map of the Universe Lets Users ‘Travel Through Space and Time’


Hadrien Gurnel, software engineer at EPFL's Laboratory for Experimental Museology, explores with a virtual reality headset the most detailed 3D map of the universe with the virtual reality software VIRUP, on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, in St-Sulpice near Laus
New Map of the Universe Lets Users ‘Travel Through Space and Time’
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Swiss researchers say they have completed the most detailed virtual reality (VR) map of the universe ever created.

The map permits users to “travel through space and time,” the researchers said in a recent statement. It can be imagined as a kind of Google Earth, but for the universe. The map was created by a team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).

With the help of VR headsets, users can visit places in the universe virtually. This includes the International Space Station, the Moon, Saturn and far away exoplanets.

The Virtual Reality Universe Project (VIRUP), created by a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, depicts a detailed VR map of the universe. This image shows the International Space Station. (Image Courtesy: EPFL)
The Virtual Reality Universe Project (VIRUP), created by a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, depicts a detailed VR map of the universe. This image shows the International Space Station. (Image Courtesy: EPFL)

The software program is called the Virtual Reality Universe Project, or VIRUP. The researchers said they combined the largest data set of information about the universe to create the three-dimensional (3D) experience.

People can see the virtual universe through VR equipment or with 3D glasses in a theater. A personal computer can also be used to see the universe in a non-3D way.

Jean-Paul Kneib is the director of EPFL's astrophysics laboratory. He told The Associated Press one of the best parts of the project was putting together parts of the data set “into one framework.”

“You can see the universe at different scales -- nearby us, around the Earth, around the solar system, at the Milky Way level," Kneib said. "To see through the universe and time up to the beginning -- what we call the Big Bang." Many scientists believe the Big Bang is the explosion that created the universe.

VIRUP produces images that can appear as close as one meter or seemingly at an infinite distance. It is available to everyone for free, but does require at least a computer and is best experienced with VR equipment that can also show 3D images.

It aims to get many kinds of visitors. This includes both scientists looking to get a virtual picture of the data they collect and people seeking a new way to explore the universe.

The Virtual Reality Universe Project (VIRUP), created by a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, depicts a detailed VR map of the universe. This image shows the Milky Way. (Image Courtesy: EPFL)
The Virtual Reality Universe Project (VIRUP), created by a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, depicts a detailed VR map of the universe. This image shows the Milky Way. (Image Courtesy: EPFL)

The software has been released in its first, or beta version. This version can run on personal computers, but not Mac computers from Apple.

Downloading the software and content can be difficult for less skilled computer users. Users seeking the best experience will also need a powerful computer with a lot of storage.

There are different versions of the software. A smaller version is aimed at the public and a larger one is meant for scientists or astronomy experts.

The project combines information from eight databases. It includes at least 4,500 known exoplanets, tens of millions of galaxies and hundreds of millions of space objects. More than 1.5 billion light producing objects from the Milky Way alone are included.

The Virtual Reality Universe Project (VIRUP), created by a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, depicts a detailed VR map of the universe. In addition to being able to see the virtual universe through VR equipment.
The Virtual Reality Universe Project (VIRUP), created by a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, depicts a detailed VR map of the universe. In addition to being able to see the virtual universe through VR equipment.

The researchers expect to continually add data, meaning the virtual experience will keep getting better with time. Future databases could include space rocks called asteroids in our solar system or farther objects in our galaxy.

Yves Revaz is an astrophysicist with the EPFL who spoke to the AP about the effort. He called the system “a very efficient way of visiting all the different scales that compose our universe.” Revaz added: ”A very important part of this project is that it's a first step toward treating much larger data sets which are coming."

I’m Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

virtual reality (VR) – n. a set of images and sounds produced by a computer to represent a real place or situation

headset –n. a device worn on the head that permits the use to see and hear computer images

exoplanet – n. a planet that orbits a star outside our solar system

three-dimensional (3D) – adj. having or appearing to have length, depth and height

framework –n. a set of ideas or facts that provide support for something

scale – n. the size or level of something

infiniteadj. extremely large or great

efficientadj. working well and not wasting time or energy

compose – v. to be the parts that something consists of

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