3D holograms bringing astronomy to life

Allowing people to watch massive stars forming.


The formation of globular clusters (GCs) remains one of the main unsolved problems in star and galaxy formation. The past decades have seen remarkable progress in constraining the physics of GC formation from a variety of directions.

In a new study, scientists have discovered a creative way by getting motivated from a 19th-century magic trick. They have developed 3D holograms that allow people to watch massive stars forming before their eyes.

Scientists wanted to understand how massive stars form it’s inherently an abstract and complex topic to non-experts. Thus, they developed the 3-D 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 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.

Also, the 65-inch monitor for events at the University of Leeds, a “travel-sized” version of the kit enables the group to take their exploration to schools, conferences, and public events, for example, festivals. Participants are given to make their own advanced smartphone sized hologram creator which they can bring home with them.

Trying to imagining evolving star clusters is quite tricky and although 2-D images from telescopes or computer simulations are regularly used as visual aids. That’s the reason; the StarFormMapper team was keen to find a way to demonstrate star formation in 3-D.

Scientists used 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 scientists, who are ultimately hoping their scientific results will underpin the study of how all galaxies evolve.

Dr. Anne Buckner said, “We wanted to excite school kids about astrophysics. 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. We wondered if we could adopt something similar to this to work for astronomy, and as a result, we can project 3-D 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 understand the research better. 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 3-D on their smartphone or tablet.

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