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3D holograms bring the Universe to life

The Universe is a very big place populated by very big things where very big things happen. In fact, the Universe is so very big and the mechanisms that drive the very big things are so very big that trying visualise them often goes beyond the limits of the human imagination.

As such it can be quite a challenge for the scientists who study those very big things to effectively communicate these concepts to the general public. Now, thanks to STFC funding, one group of scientists have come up with an effective way to help the public visualise some of these very big things: holograms.

Taking inspiration from a 19th century magic trick, researchers from the University of Leeds have developed 3D holograms that will allow people to watch one of those very big things – the formation of massive stars – happen before their eyes.

Massive stars are massive in both senses of the word: they are absolutely huge and possess a huge amount of mass (the thing that, in the presence of a gravitational field, we think of as weight). The mechanisms that drive their formation are equally massive – involving unimaginably vast clouds of gas and dust that, driven by localised fluctuations in gravitational fields (or, perhaps, by the shockwave thrown out by a nearby supernova) collapse and heat up until… BOOM! A new star is born. Even for the experts who study them, visualising this process can stretch the limits of their imagination.

Funded by a two-year STFC Public Engagement SPARKS award, the StarFormMapper team has developed an hour-long workshop that, using a combination of presentation slides and holograms, takes people through the story of star formation. The holograms are created by placing an upside-down Perspex pyramid on a 65-inch monitor that plays a specially formatted video. The images reflect from the sides of the pyramid and create the illusion of a three-dimensional image suspended in space.

Dr Anne Buckner demonstrated the holograms at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) in Lancaster on 1-4 July 2019.

“We wanted to excite school kids about astrophysics,” says Buckner. Virtual reality headsets were an obvious choice, but they were too expensive, and would be impractical for large audiences, so Buckner took inspiration from an unlikely source: 19th century magic shows.

“As a fan of magic I was aware of an illusion called ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ which has been around since the 1800s,” she says. “We wondered if we could adapt something similar to this to work for astronomy, and as a result we have the ability to project 3D holograms bringing millions of years of stellar evolution to life.”

The researchers on the StarFormMapper project used a combination of observational and theoretical data to understand how massive stars and star clusters (groups of stars gravitationally bound together) form. Using data from star-mapping spacecraft like ESA’s Gaia and Herschel missions, researchers now have a wealth of data available to them that, they hope, will help us to understand how stars and galaxies form.

Initial audience feedback was positive and Buckner now plans to take a portable version of the workshop (based on a 32-inch monitor) on tour to secondary school students in West Yorkshire and then perhaps to conferences and public events such as festivals. There is even an app in development that will allow people watch millions of years of star formation and evolution in 3D on their smart phone or tablet.

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Last updated: 04 July 2019


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