'God's-eye view' of universe gamified to let players control the evolution of galaxies
PC gamers will journey deep into the universe and dictate the fate of galaxies in the next phase of an advanced cosmological visualisation tool developed at the University of Southampton.
The Astera visualiser can render millions of galaxies simultaneously to offer a scientifically and visually accurate, interactive view of the extragalactic universe.
The immersive software was created by postgraduate research student Chris Marsden, part of Southamptons EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Next Generation Computational Modelling (NGCM), to allow users to fly through and explore the wider universe, with dynamic first-person control.
Chris says: "If you were to do the impossible and zoom out our view of the universe to perceive it on the largest scales, you would see billions of galaxies scattered like glittering jewels on a pall of dark velvet.
"You would see the vast diversity in galaxy structure with colossal, ancient elliptical galaxies and intricate, tightly wound spiral galaxies. The variation in colours would be dazzlingly beautiful, and the large scale structures that galaxies arrange themselves, following mysterious, veiled dark matter.
"This 'God's eye view' of the universe has existed only in the minds of astronomers, until now. Large scale, extragalactic astronomy is particularly hard to visualize using conventional methods, primarily due to the vast range of length scales and its complex spatial and temporal structure; Astera provides the solution, rendering the extragalactic universe in real-time 3D."
Astera combines the latest advances in large scale computer simulations and computer graphics to simulate cutting edge physics in the extragalactic universe. The platform runs on a modified version of the Unreal Engine and uses hundreds of galaxy images extracted from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
The platform is based on novel, data-driven, phenomenological models characterised by a 'bottom-up' approach.
"The least possible assumptions and associated parameters initially define the models," Francesco explains. "Additional degrees of complexities can be gradually included, if needed, allowing for extreme flexibility and transparency, avoiding the risk of being clouded by an initially too heavy parameterisation.
"Our data-driven approach substantially lowers the number of assumptions and free parameters compared to many competing modelling approaches, and it is particularly suited to create flexible and accurate 3D renditions of the visible Universe on very large scales."
Astera has received funding from a range of sources including technology company Nvidia. An Impact Acceleration Account grant is also preparing the platform to be installed as an exhibit at the Winchester Science Centre.
Francesco wants the next phase of the project to capture the imaginations of the general public and inspire a new generation of astronomers.
"Our upgraded Astera will merge the most recent cutting-edge results in galaxy evolution with a unique game that encompasses the whole scale of the observable universe," he says. "In Astera, a player will be able to control the evolution of a galaxy over its lifetime, perhaps choosing when star formation will occur, or when a galaxy will merge, and witness first-hand the consequences of these processes on the shape and evolution of galaxies.
"The player will thus be able to enjoy, visualise and at the same time learn about the main physical events in the lives of galaxies."