Man with astronomy telescope looking at the stars

3D holograms help bring astronomy to life

Image credit: Allexxandar |

Taking inspiration from the 19th-century illusion trick 'Pepper’s Ghost', researchers from the University of Leeds have developed 3D holograms that allow people to watch star clusters forming before their eyes.

The holograms – developed by the StarFormMapper team at the university – are created using an upside-down Perspex pyramid placed on a 65-inch monitor that plays a specially formatted video.

“Our research focuses on how massive stars form,” said Dr Anne Buckner of the School of Physics and Astronomy. “It’s inherently an abstract and complex topic to non-experts, so we developed the 3D holograms to help explain it in an easy to understand and visually engaging way.”

In addition to the 65-inch monitor used specifically for events at the university, a “travel-sized” version of the kit – accompanied by a 32-inch monitor – allows the team to take their research to external places, such as schools. “We wanted to excite school kids about astrophysics,” Buckner enthused.

The team saw virtual reality headsets as an option, but they were too expensive and would be impractical for large audiences. As a result, Buckner took inspiration from an unlikely source of 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,” she said. “We wondered if we could adapt something similar to this to work for astronomy and as a result we have the ability to project 3D holograms, bringing millions of years of stellar evolution to life.”

Example of 3D Hologram inspired by 19th Century Magic, now being used for astronomy outreach

Special video and a perspex pyramid allows Dr Anne Buckner's team to demonstrate millions of years of massive start evolution to students and members of the public

Image credit: Dr Anne Buckner

Even for experts in the field of astronomy, attempting to imagine evolving star clusters thousands of light-years away is deemed a challenge. While 2D images from telescopes or computer simulations are regularly used as visual aids to demonstrate this, the StarFormMapper team were keen to find a way to demonstrate star formation in 3D.

To achieve this, the researchers on the project used a combination of observational and theoretical data to understand the mechanisms underlying massive star, and star cluster, formation.

Thanks to two of ESA’s observatory missions – Herschel (2009-2013) and, since 2014, Gaia – an increasing amount of data has been made available to the researchers. They are also hoping their scientific results will underpin the study of how all galaxies evolve.

The team are currently demonstrating the holograms at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Lancaster (1-4 July 2019), in the form of a one-hour workshop.

Expanding on their research, Bucker intends to take the hologram workshops on tour and deliver it to secondary school students in West Yorkshire. Furthermore, the team are developing an app which will enable people to watch millions of years of stars forming and evolving in 3D on their smartphone or tablet.

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