Soyuz capsule interior

Relive Tim Peake’s descent from space in new VR film

Image credit: Science Museum

Visitors to the Science Museum in London will soon have the opportunity to experience the perilous descent from space on board the same Soyuz capsule in which UK astronaut Tim Peake returned from the International Space Station (ISS) - all done through an immersive 12-minute VR presentation watched on Samsung Gear VR headsets, powered by Oculus technology.

The Science Museum Group’s first permanent virtual reality experience will give the public a unique opportunity to experience the 360° 3D view from inside the Soyuz spacecraft capsule as it makes the dangerous 400km journey back to Earth from the ISS, slowing from a speed in orbit of 25,000km per hour to land safely in the grassland steppes of Kazakhstan.

Astronaut Tim Peake himself appears in the VR film, providing the voiceover and appearing “on screen” inside the capsule, guiding the viewer through the high-speed journey back to Earth and highlighting points of interest along the way.

Created by the award-winning Alchemy VR team for the Science Museum Group, Space Descent VR offers visitors the kind of first-person ride previously only available to the very small number of highly-qualified astronauts who have visited the ISS in person and returned to Earth.

VR audience

Visitors immerse themselves in the Space Descent VR film

Image credit: Jonathan Wilson

To achieve the impressive level of realism in the VR experience, the team consulted leading experts, including Major Peake himself, who was one of the first people to view the VR film during testing. Peake noted the attention to detail inside the capsule, pointing out such seemingly insignificant aspects as the pieces of adhesive tape on the control panel, which he immediately recognised and remembered from his real-world flight home in the Soyuz capsule.

Commenting on the finished film, Peake said: “It really is breath-taking – and that comes from someone who has spent an awful lot of time using VR systems while training for my first mission. Science Museum visitors are going to experience something that truly is very close to the real thing!”

Speaking at the launch event this morning, Anthony Geffen, founder of Alchemy VR and creative director of Atlantic Productions, said, “This VR experience really does raise the bar in terms of storytelling. I also think it’s going to be totally unique in terms of being in the museum space and what VR can do for museums.

“When we started collaborating with Tim Peake, what we wanted to do is bring absolutely his experience of coming from the space station back to earth. We wanted to have total accuracy.

“The team used rendering techniques that are used normally with feature films to deliver that kind of total realism that takes you there. Each frame is 5K. Each eye is delivering 2.5K, which is the maximum we could get out of the phone at the present time, but we’ve actually gone way beyond that and had to down-res it into the phone.”

Unsurprisingly, given the stunning realism of the VR experience, the computing demands during the film’s final production stages were sky-high. As Geffen explained, “Computers are very powerful, but the final rendering was going to take two years if we didn’t use the right number of computers! We used 100 computers in a month to render this experience and you can see why when you see the film.

“The big moment for me was when we put it on Tim’s head and he said ‘My God, I'm back inside the Soyuz’. Then when he did the descent and he got out of it, he said, ‘I've just relived the descent.’ And he’s a very grounded guy, so I was amazed at how excited he was by the experience.”

As well as the VR film, the physical Soyuz capsule – weighing approximately 1.5 tonnes – and its descent parachute are also on permanent display at the Science Museum, the capsule’s outer surfaces showing the effects of having been charred by temperatures of around 1,500 degrees Celsius experienced during atmospheric re-entry. The Space Descent VR experience is being launched just two months after Peake visited the Science Museum to unveil the capsule.

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Image credit: Jonathan Wilson

The Russian-made Soyuz TMA-19M descent module carried astronauts Yuri Malenchenko (Commander, Russia), Tim Kopra (Flight Engineer, USA) and Tim Peake (Flight Engineer, UK) on his Principia mission to the International Space Station on 15 December 2015 and returned the same crew to Earth on 18 June 2016. The crew was part of Expeditions 46 and 47 to the International Space Station.

Science Museum Group Director Ian Blatchford said, “The Science Museum Group is constantly working to revolutionise how our visitors experience and learn about the past, present and future of science and technology, and the ways in which they engage with the magnificent objects in our collection. Space Descent VR with Tim Peake is an innovative and unique offer and I’m confident it will excite and inspire people in equal measure.”

Space Descent VR opens to the public at the Science Museum on 24 March 2017. More information and advance tickets are available online now from the Science Museum

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