Purdue professor pieces together how massive stars explode using virtual reality
When giant stars in the Milky Way galaxy explode, they leave behind a trail of dust and gas that astronomers on Earth can observe for many thousands of years.
In partnership with ITaP’s Envision Center, Dan Milisavljevic, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, is using virtual reality to reconstruct the remnants of these exploded stars, known as supernovae.
Milisavljevic likens reconstructing a supernova to a bomb squad investigation. Much like a bomb squad studies the distribution of debris and its chemical composition to try to understand what happened, he analyzes supernova remnants to learn more about how the explosion happened and what kind of star it used to be.
Before coming to Purdue, Milisavljevic built such reconstructions on a computer screen. It was a workable solution, but he lacked the ability to walk around the reconstruction and change the perspective actively, the way you can in virtual reality.
That made the Envision Center – with its combination of cutting-edge VR technology and staff experts – the perfect fit for his research.
Working with Envision Center technical director George Takahashi and Jordan McGraw, a graduate student in computer graphics technology and student employee at the center, Milisavljevic has already built four VR supernova reconstructions, with plans for more in the works. Compared to a video, a user has much more flexibility in how they manipulate and view the reconstruction, and they can use controllers to actually reach in and pick up the 3-D reconstruction and rotate it however they please.
A particular focus of the Purdue team’s VR work is co-location, meaning multiple people can interact with the visualization at the same time. Thanks to the Envision Center’s new Oculus Quest headsets, the people don’t even need to be in the same physical location – they can connect to the shared experience over the internet and even see each other inside the virtual environment.
Milisavljevic also notes that the virtual environment is an ideal place to compare his reconstructions of observed explosions with computer simulations done by other researchers to see how they match up.
“What we’re doing here is something that could really transform how we explore complex datasets,” he says.
Keeping costs down has also been a priority for the project. The headsets they use only cost about $400, less than a new iPhone. Although the motivation for the work was his research, it has natural applications to education and public outreach and Milisavljevic and his Envision Center collaborators hope to eventually bring the technology into K-12 classrooms.