Article from Issue 228/2019

As you might guess from certain titles in this month's selection, Graham has finally built himself an open source 3D printer.

Space visualization

Gaia Sky

Space is big. This is perhaps why we have a large choice of astronomy and planetarium applications. Both Stellarium and KStars are fantastic, for example, along with Cartes du Ciel, which we looked at last month. But space simulation and visualization is a slightly different and more niche genre, and one that isn't so well populated. The incredible Celestia lets you fly through an ultra-realistic 3D space environment at faster than the speed of light, but its development pace has slowed to a glacial speed over the last few years. This is why it's wonderful to find Gaia Sky, an even more impressive portal into not just the night sky, but the entire universe. And it's being actively developed.

Gaia's capabilities quickly become apparent after launching the application. You first need to decide on which texture size to download, with high-res textures requiring an additional 250MB. This is nothing compared to the star catalog; the complete star catalog is a staggering 60GB, and you can augment this with various other catalogs and 3D meshes. If you know anything about space exploration, this catalog size may sound familiar, and that's because the application has been built and developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), bundling data from its own Gaia mission to chart the roughly one billion stars that surround us in our galaxy.

1 Camera: Not just for seeing, you can also use the camera view to make a video recording. 2 Visibility: Easily enable and disable objects within the main view. 3  Settings: Customize the view to suit your system and viewing preferences. 4  Datasets: Gaia supports vast catalogs of star and object data. 5 Objects: Easily find planets and other well-known objects. 6 3D view: See objects exactly as they might appear in space. 7 Go anywhere: Select any star in the sky and travel to its location. 8 Properties: Thanks to ESA's Gaia sky survey, every object comes with a wealth of data to study.

The main view starts with a celestial perspective on mother Earth. Much like many astronomy applications, you can use the mouse to change your perspective, and our planet is lit accurately to reflect the time of day on our sphere's light and dark sides. It all looks very tranquil from this distance. The backdrop is lit by the millions of stars found in your chosen catalog, and the brilliant thing about Gaia Sky is that you can not just click on these points of light to find out more information, but actually visit any of them. Right click and select Go to, and you immediately travel through space to your chosen location, from where you can view your alien surroundings. This being the ESA, star positions are accurate, but so too are their proper motions and radial velocities. Traveling to the edge of the dataset and looking back at the galaxy is jaw dropping when you realize the nebulous galactic cloud is being rendered from real and observed points in Gaia Sky's database.

Closer to home, you can choose any of the planets to visit and even view the outlook from their surfaces, compete with tessellated height maps. You can speed up or slow down time through the epochs and even view everything on a variety of 3D hardware. Similarly, there's planetarium and 360-degree projection modes, either of which could put Gaia at the center of an educational installation or temporary planetarium if you have the projection hardware. You could then use the integrated Python interpreter to script your own tours through the universe. It looks incredible (and obviously needs some decent 3D acceleration to get the most out of a large dataset), and the results are clear and predictable. This is more than can be said for the view from the average light-polluted and rain-splattered English window.

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