Contributed by: Maia Mongado
Gaia Sky is an open-source, real time astrovisualization software built by scientists at the Heidelburg University Center for Astronomy. It focuses on star location data gleaned by the European Space Agency, specifically the Gaia satellite.
It is available with periodical prebuilt releases, but the GitHub is also available for developers to modify or extend it with new code. There is both a desktop version and an OpenVR integrated version for virtual reality.
Desktop Requirements and Setup
To install, follow the instructions for the appropriate system here. You can access prebuilt releases here. While this does run on MacOS, Linux, and Windows, Windows has the simplest installation process. It runs well on Windows 10 and Windows 10 Server, but has not been tested by a student on other machines.
Once the .exe is downloaded, simply click to launch.
The installer itself only downloads the program framework and basic planet data. In order to see actual scientific star data, you will need to run the .exe and download the datasets you want in the Dataset Manager. Then before launching, make sure to select the dataset you downloaded before launching.
VR Requirements and Setup
First, follow desktop installation above and then follow the instructions for the appropriate system here. Note that macOS is not supported for VR. For Windows, VR automatically comes with desktop installation.
(Oculus Quest 2 + Windows) Launch your virtual instance of Windows. Run SteamVR, then run the VR version of Gaia Sky (this should be a different .exe than the desktop .exe). Note that when you first run, you'll need to choose some datasets to download. Then launch Gaia Sky and put on your headset!
(Oculus Quest Controller)
X/A - toggles menu
Y/B - toggles names of planets/stars
To fly forwards/backwards, use the joystick. Press the joystick itself to toggle between focused/free mode.
(Common issues) Sometimes the screen freezes after VR is launched in the Paperspace machine and the VR headset never finishes loading while the desktop stays stuck on a glitched screen. The only work around I've found is to restart the machine entirely (restarting SteamVR didn't work for me; however, I would recommend trying that first as restarting the machine can be time consuming).
Accessibility: The estimated time for someone to get it up and running
Initial download - Anyone with Windows can get this up and running in twenty minutes - it's fairly user-friendly
Ease of use - This is noted by users as one of the easier astrovisualization softwares to get the hang of; the controls are fairly intuitive and the UI/UX is organized well.
Power: The engine's power - i.e. how much one can do with this
High: It's fairly powerful in general - the star / planet location data is extremely accurate to real space missions, and the VR implementation is well supported. However, it does not have terrain data like OpenSpace or Space Engine and I would say is the weakest of the three in terms of engine power.
Usage: Evaluation of software's use for the following purposes
Art - Doesn't have great support for terrain data or graphical elements like particle shading, etc. - it would be good for plotting 3D data since it supports star/planet location
Game design - N/A
Science - Built specifically for scientific visualization and works very well; all data is scientifically accurate.
Education - Very accurate data combined with fairly easy user interface and support for planetarium setups makes this a very strong contender for educational software.
I enjoy the software; it's not as detailed as other astrovisualization software that I've explored (OpenSpace, SpaceEngine) but it makes up for that in having well supported VR with fully fleshed out controls. I personally found it very easy to use for a first-timer, so I think its potential to be a popular software across a wide user base is high. It's also updated every once in a while, so new features are still being developed. [Maia]
Possibilities for Collaboration
As of right now, Gaia Sky does not have multiuser / collaborative support in VR. It does have well documented support for single-project and multi-projector planetarium setups, which lends itself well to presenter - follower collaboration. Its OpenVR backbone is meant to be used on HMDs.
However, it is open source on Github which does make it a good candidate for collaboration for a developer who wants to build multiplayer capabilities on the existing system. The dataset is quite extensive and it is extremely easy for a single user to get lost in it; having the ability to jump to a leader's location or observe what a leader is observing would could curtail this. Users could also leave notes for each other in a shared space or be able to share their coordinates with each other.
As it is now, the software can be laggy on the Oculus Quest + Virtual Desktop combo (but runs quite smoothly on headsets like the HTC Vive connected to powerful PCs). So multiplayer aspects could slow it down even more.