Exploring the massive supernova remnant of a 400-year-old star has never been easier.
A team of researchers lead by Kimberly Kowal Arcand of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the Center for Computation and Visualization at Brown University have begun development of a one-of-a-kind VR experience that utilizes data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory mission, infrared data provided by the Spitzer Space Telescope, and optical data from various other telescopes to render a VR simulation of the youngest known supernova remnant in the Milky Way Galaxy, referred to as Cassiopeia A.
Roughly 15 to 20 times the total mass of the sun, the 400-year-old dead star was first rendered in 3-D by NASA using optical and X-ray data. It was based off these initial renderings that Arcand and her team were able to build an immersive VR experience using multiple visualization platforms, including MinVR and VTK.
“Our universe is dynamic and 3-D, but we don’t get that when we are constantly looking at things” in two dimensions, spoke Arcand.
“Astronomers have long studied supernova remnants to better understand exactly how stars produce and disseminate many of the elements observed on Earth and in the cosmos at large.”
The colorful interactive experience allows users to explore the various portions of the cosmic graveyard and learn more about the science behind the intense spectacle.
“The first time I ever walked inside the same data set that I have been staring at for 20 years, I just immediately was fascinated by things I had never noticed, like how various bits of the iron were in different locations,” Arcand continues. “The ability to look at something in three dimensions and being immersed in it just kind of opened up my eyes to think about it in different ways.”
“Who doesn’t want to walk inside a dead star?”
The Cassiopeia A simulation is available in multiple iterations, from a “VR cave” featuring 3D visuals projected onto the floor and walls, to a more conventional Oculus Rift VR experience. Arcand and her team have also developed a mobile VR rendition for Google Cardboard and other smartphone-based VR solutions.
In the future, the team hopes to add additional functionality for visually-impaired users, such as various sound cues.
Image Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO; NASA/CXC/E.Jiang