Walking on the surface of a Comet!
The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission launched in 2004 and rendezvoused with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 6 August 2014 approximately 317 million miles from Earth. Since then data from the mission has revolutionized our understanding of comets, the conditions present in the early solar system and the possible origins of life on earth. The Philae lander captivated the public’s imagination and is the first time in history we have soft-landed on a comet.
This year at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition in London (July 4th and 11th 2016) we ran an exhibit called "A Comet Revealed: Rosetta and Philae at Comet 67P" where members of the public were able to talk to scientists directly involved in the Rosetta mission. The exhibit was organized by members of the Rosetta team and specialists in Virtual Reality based at: ESA, The Open University, University of Oxford, University of Kent, Queen’s University Belfast, Queen Mary University of London, University of Reading, Imperial College London, and University College London.
My lab produced a virtual reality comet experience which will formed part of the exhibit stand. Using the latest data from the mission people were be able to view the Rosetta space craft, Philae lander and Comet 67P in high-fidelity immersive virtual reality with Vicon motion tracking. Data taken by Philae during its descent to 67P allowed people to walk on the surface of the comet.
Comet Virtual Reality Experience
The image of the 67P you see above is a screen capture of the virtual reality. It is fun to think that the data used to produce the VR for the exhibit has travelled over 400 million miles back to Earth. Travelling at the speed of light this journey takes around 35 minutes. Data forming the 3D model of 67P was captured by instruments on board the Rosetta craft. We also used a high-resolution surface patch modelled captured by Philae which allowed people walk on the surface of 67P.
My lab at the University of Reading specialises in the use of 3D rendering and robotics in an area at the crossover between Psychology and Engineering. To put the comet in VR we use high-fidelity 3D rendering with a state-of-the-art Nvidia 1080 GPU. Couple this with a stereoscopic virtual reality headset and motion tracking cameras kindly loaned to us from Vicon, and you get a stunning VR experience. You really do have to see it.