3D holograms bringing astronomy to life

July 01, 2019

Scientists working on unravelling the mysteries of star cluster formation have found an innovative way of sharing their work with the general public. Taking inspiration from a 19th century magic trick, researchers from the University of Leeds have developed 3D holograms that allow people to watch massive stars forming before their eyes.

Dr Anne Buckner will be demonstrating the holograms at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting in Lancaster on 1- 4 July 2019.

"Our research focusses on how massive stars form" she explains, "it's inherently an abstract and complex topic to non-experts, so we developed the 3D holograms to help explain it in an easy to understand and visually engaging way".

Funded by a two-year STFC Public Engagement SPARKS award, a the team have developed a one-hour workshop which takes participants through the story of star formation (using a combination of presentation slides and holograms), and then explains how the hologram technology works. The holograms are created using an upside-down Perspex pyramid placed on a 65-inch monitor that plays a specially formatted video.

In addition to the 65-inch monitor for events at the University of Leeds, a "travel-sized" version of the kit (with a 32-inch monitor) allows the team to take their research to schools, conferences, and public events such as festivals. Participants are given the chance to make their own smart-phone size hologram creator which they can take home with them.

Attempting to imagine evolving star clusters - thousands of light-years away - is challenging (even for experts in the field) and although 2D images from telescopes or computer simulations, are regularly used as visual aids, the StarFormMapper team were keen to find a way to demonstrate star formation in 3D.

Researchers on the StarFormMapper project use a combination of observational and theoretical data to understand the mechanisms underlying massive star, and star cluster, formation. With the advent of ESA's Gaia and Herschel missions, an increasing amount of data is available to the researchers, who are ultimately hoping their scientific results will underpin the study of how all galaxies evolve.

"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".

Initial audience feedback has been positive, and it appears that the holograms are helping people to better understand the research. Buckner plans to take the workshop on tour and deliver it to secondary school students in West Yorkshire, and there is an app in development which will enable people to watch millions of years of stars forming and evolving in 3D on their smartphone or tablet.
Media contacts

Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7802 877699

Anita Heward
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034243

Kate Arkless Gray
Royal Astronomical Society

Science contacts

Dr Anne Buckner
University of Leeds

Interview facilities

Media representatives are cordially invited to attend the meeting and can register at no cost. Press room facilities will be available in Faraday Seminar Room 2 for the duration of the conference - from 0900 BST on Monday 1 July to 1500 BST on Thursday 4 July. For free registration for the meeting, please contact the press team via nam-press@ras.ac.uk

Scientists at the conference are also available for interview via both a radio studio and TV studio at Lancaster University; the Globelynx TV network offers broadcast quality HD video to the world's leading broadcasters and an ISDN line for interviews in a radio booth.

Please book these via the Lancaster University Press Office on +44(0)1524 592612.

Images and captions

Notes for editors

Dr Anne Buckner will be presenting this work during the poster session in the afternoon of Tuesday 2 July, at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Lancaster.

NAM 2019

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2019) is taking place at the University of Lancaster from 30 June to 4 July 2019. It includes the annual meetings of the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar-Terrestrial (MIST) groups. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and Lancaster University. Full details are visible on the dedicated conference website https://nam2019.org/. Access credentials for embargoed press materials are available on request from the NAM press team via nam-press@ras.ac.uk.

About the Royal Astronomical Society

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 4,000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

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About the Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is part of UK Research and Innovation - the UK body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories as well as supporting UK research at a number of international research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB and the ESO telescopes in Chile. STFC is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC's Astronomy and Space Science programme provides support for a wide range of facilities, research groups and individuals in order to investigate some of the highest priority questions in astrophysics, cosmology and solar system science. STFC's astronomy and space science programme is delivered through grant funding for research activities, and also through support of technical activities at STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. STFC also supports UK astronomy through the international European Southern Observatory.

T: https://twitter.com/stfc_matters

About Lancaster University

Lancaster is a research-intensive university which combines world-class research with excellent teaching and high levels of student satisfaction.

Lancaster University is among the best in the UK. Top 10 in all three major national league tables, it is also highly ranked in international league tables such as the QS World Rankings.

Its 6th-place ranking in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019, as well as the award of the coveted University of the Year title for 2018, cements its place as an elite UK university.

For more information please see http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/about-us/rankings-and-reputation/

Royal Astronomical Society

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