Exploring TRAPPIST-1 Virtually

The cosmOcosm team, lead by CU Boulder graduate student Kevin Sweet and including faculty co-leads Tara Knight and Adam Burgasser, brought the newest development of the Sound Planetarium project to the 2019 TRAPPIST-1 conference in Liege, Belgium.

Kevin Sweet setting up the TRAPPIST-1 Virtual demonstration at the conference venue.

The Sound Planetarium project was originally developed to explore spatialized sound in “sonifying” astronomical data. Kevin has been exploring this process in virtual spaces, with a key innovation in making the sound process two-way – both hearing and speaking to our data!

Concept model of the TRAPPIST-1d surface

In honor of the TRAPPIST-1 conference, the team developed a virtual reality setting for the surface of TRAPPIST-1, one in which we can explore both the planetary system at large (viewing the orbits of the planets around its low-mass host star) and the view from the surface. Movement in the simulation was controlled by both “gaze” (where you looked) and basic voice commands.

Kevin explaining what the viewer sees in the virtual space.
Kevin “suiting up” a virtual explorer

We got a lot of great feedback from the folks who tried out the demonstration, which helps us explore new narratives for exploring this amazing system in virtual space.

Kevin discussing ideas with Artem Burdanov

cosmOcosm Presents Sound Planetarium at the USA Science and Engineering Festival

The cosmOcosm team was invited by the NSF to present their Sound Planetarium system at the 2018 USA Science and Engineering Festival. Known as the “National Science Fair”, this festival features science and science education from across the nation in areas ranging from astronomy to zoology. The NSF invited cosmOcosm directors Adam Burgasser and Tara Knight to bring their demonstration to the Festival to highlight some of the science outreach and exploration activities funded by the NSF.

cosmOcosm brought three demonstrations for the Festival: our Sound Planetarium, our Personal Sound Planetarium and our Virtual Sound Planetarium. All three are experiments in spatial sonification, transforming data in to sound that is located in space.

Our first Sound Planetarium demonstration consists of 6 speakers and software to produce spatialized sound, which allows us to “spatially sonify” astronomical data. In this demonstration, we sonified the 10 brightest stars in the sky, mapping properties such as color, brightness, and spectral type to tone, volume, and vibration (timbre). We spatialized the sound to a rotating system, allowing the “stars” to rise in the East and set in the West at a fast enough pace to detect. We also had a second demonstration that sonified gravitational wave bursts (and background noise) as detected by LIGO, with the help of Marc Favata’s “Sounds of Spacetime” site (https://www.soundsofspacetime.org/).

Yuka Murakami describing the Sound Planetarium to a family of Festival participants.

Our second demonstration was a Personal Sound Planetarium that allows the use to experience the spatially sonified data through headphones, which makes it somewhat easier to hear and place the sounds. This is similar to the sound effects you hear in some music where instruments or singers are placed at different locations, but in this case those locations and sounds are based on stellar data.

Tara Knight inquiring what a participant is hearing in the Personal Sound Planetarium

Our third demonstration was a Virtual Sound Planetarium that allows the user to explore the night sky while virtually floating in space. This included sonification of stars when the user looks at them. This can be a little disorienting! But it reminds us that space is not just “up” but all around us.

Adylan Fyhrie describing what participants are about to experience in the Virtual Sound Planetarium
A Festival participant getting her bearing in the Virtual Sound Planetarium
Kevin Sweet keeping an eye on a Virtual Sound Planetarium participant while he explores the space around him.

The Sound Planetarium project was developed to force us to think about how we explore the Universe in different ways. In astronomy, we are highly biased toward our visual senses (“let’s see the data”, “what a beautiful image”), yet many astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts are blind. More importantly, much of the information we gather from space comes in non-visible forms – radio, infrared and X-ray radiation, cosmic rays, and gravitational waves are key examples – so “visualization” is a choice. The sonification movement has enabled all of us to re-think our approach to scientific information and how we can analyze ever more complex datasets.

The cosmOcosm Sound Planetarium project is a collaboration of University of Colorado Boulder and UC San Diego and, with PIs Tara Knight and Adam Burgasser. Much of the development has been achieved through our student team of Kevin Sweet, Yuka Murakami, Adylan Fyhrie, Jake Cushnir and Melisa Tallis. The work has been funded by the NSF and the UCSD Frontiers of Innovation Scholars Program.

Orbital Artwork Earns Award

We normally think of orbits as the paths of satellites going around the Earth, or planets going around their host star, in both cases caused by the gravitational attraction between the two bodies. But the stars themselves also orbit within and around our collective systems of stars, the Milky Way Galaxy. In this case, the gravitational force is a cumulative attraction distributed among other stars, gas, dust and dark matter in the Galaxy, the last making up about 95% of the mass of our Galaxy. While we don’t have the longevity to observe the roughly quarter-million-year orbits of stars like the Sun, we can predict them using basic laws of physics.

In 2009, Adam was investigating the kinematics and Galactic orbits of several dozen low-temperature subdwarfs (metal-poor stars that likely formed early in our Galaxy’s history), and generated a visualization of these orbits for a press release at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Pasadena.  Here’s one of the images from this release:

And here’s a movie generated for the press conference, tracing the path of one of the “diving” stars LST 1610-0040 (note that slow down as the star passes the region of the Sun and the radio broadcast sphere around Earth, inspired by the opening sequence in the movie Contact):


A few years later, Adam decided to look a larger sample, over 500 L-type dwarfs discovered by colleague Sarah Schmidt in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Schmidt had measured tangential (proper) and radial motions, and combining these with distance estimates it is possible to predict the orbits of these stars. Adam mapped the million-year motions of these stars as they travelled around the Galaxy to produce the following pictures:

Computed Galactic orbits of 500 L dwarfs as viewed from above the Galactic plane.

Computed Galactic orbits of 500 nearby L dwarfs as viewed from above the Galactic plane. Most are confined to the same annulus that the Sun occupies in its orbit, although there are some far flung stars that happen to be local today.

Computed Galactic orbits of 500 L dwarfs as viewed from along the mid-plane of the Galaxy.

Computed Galactic orbits of 500 L dwarfs as viewed from along the mid-plane of the Galaxy. Again, most are confined to this mid-plane, with a rare set of stars on highly inclined orbits taking them hundreds to thousands of light-years above and below the plane.


Computed Galactic orbits of 500 L dwarfs mapped into cylindrical coordinates (radius from the Galactic center and vertically through the Galactic poles).  The Sun resides at the densest concentration of orbit lines.

Computed Galactic orbits of 500 L dwarfs mapped into cylindrical coordinates (radius from the Galactic center and vertically through the Galactic poles). Here we discern distinct patterns of orbits, from “box-type” (constrained to a narrow range of radii and heights) to “comet-type” (almost purely radial) to “halo” (large deflections away from the plane. The Sun resides at the densest concentration of orbit lines.


These images earned 2nd prize in the 2011 Art in Science competition at UCSD, and was used as cover artwork for the 6th Annual Artfest 55.

Project Planetaria to Perform at La Jolla Playhouse October 4-5

Screen shot 2013-08-21 at 5.16.42 PM

Adam Burgasser’s science-art collaboration Project Planetaria will be presenting a new work, Our Star Will Die Alone, in two performances at the La Jolla Playhouse Without Walls Festival, October 4-5 at 10:30pm. The site-specific piece will explore what it means to live the life of a star through a participatory performance, integrating data-driven elements that our rooted in our scientific understanding of stellar astrophysics. Audience members will witness the birth of our star, explore its fusion through hand-held custom electronic devices (“Project Planetaria Devices”) and listen to its chaotic, post-main sequence death throes with a heavy metal score based on stellar evolutionary calculations. Through sound, light, projection, and a death metal band, this performance will articulate the productive and destructive aspects of our primary source of light and energy.

Tickets ($15) can be purchased at Festival website: http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org/wowfestival/productions/star

You can follow the creative process in the production of this show here.

Undergraduate Melisa Tallis presents piece in Project Planetaria Showcase


Undergraduate researcher Melisa Tallis probably didn’t think that in her first year at UCSD she would be producing abstract, data-driven artwork. But her piece 67 x, produced with Adriana Feketeova from the Department of Visual Arts, was one of four novel artworks presented at the TDDE 131 Final Project Showcase in June 2013.

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