Astrophysicists Use Virtual Reality To Chase Earth's Tail

November 12, 1998

Astrophysicists at the University of Warwick are using a 3D virtual reality system to research the Earth's electromagnetic tail.

This tail, similar in shape to other large solar system phenomena such as Solar flares, results from the interactions of the Earth's own magnetic field with the electromagnetic activity generated by the Sun.

The tail is much studied by astrophysicists, and agonised over by operators of telecommunications satellites concerned about the serious affects on radio communications that can be caused by occasional instabilities in the tail known as "substorms".

Dr. Sandra Chapman, Aders Ynnerman and the Space and Astrophysics Group (based in the Physics Department at the University of Warwick) are currently trying to get a better understanding of this area of near Earth space by modelling the behaviour of individual charged particles within the tail. Their model suggested that the particles could follow a complex three dimensional path that was difficult to decipher by simply viewing it on a two dimensional piece of paper or computer screen.

After days of deliberation using two dimensional methods (which included at one point trying to make a three dimensional model out of bits of multicoloured duct tape!) the researchers decided that the charged particle was following the path of an unusual but very familiar mathematical shape known as a moebius strip. Dr. Chapman then had an opportunity to examine data on some three dimensional imaging virtual reality equipment in the US and Japan, and was able to confirm in minutes that the answer they had agonised over for days was correct.

It surprised no one then that when the opportunity came to bid for new equipment under the Higher Education Funding Councils for England's Joint Research Equipment Initiative (JREI) that Dr. Chapman made a strong bid for a virtual reality 3D imaging facility to be based at Warwick. Her arguments persuaded all concerned and Warwick's Space and Astrophysics Group now hosts a 3D virtual reality facility based around an "ImmersaDesk" and a "Onyx 2" computer - one of now only two such sets of equipment available anywhere in the UK.

The equipment allows pairs of researchers to don special goggles to immerse themselves in a virtual reality three dimensional space based on any three dimensional modelling data they wish to examine. Dr Chapman's group will use it to examine further the earth's own magnetosphere and geomagnetic tail. However, the equipment will also be available to collaborators across Warwick's science departments and there are already discussions as to how the equipment may help colleagues in other departments with problems that require 3D imaging of medical, engineering and mathematical problems.
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University of Warwick

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