“When I consider your heavens….” – SunAeon update

The SunAeon team have been working on the primary site, and adding a raft of new features, which launched on Wednesday 26th September. Once again, I was very honoured to be asked to contribute to the site, providing information on the Earth, the Moon, the Sun and little Pluto.

Launching SunAeon presents you with a new introductory video, a virtual tour of the Sun, the eight planets and Pluto, showing each in turn, together with notable surface features in the case of the Earth, the Moon and the Sun, and cutaway views of the interiors of the major planets.

The main screen navigation tools remain unchanged, although the Navigate drop-down menu (accessed from the SunAeon button, top left of the screen), now includes the Sun, Earth, Moon and Pluto. Clicking on any of these will take you to your topic of interest and present the familiar surface view of the target, and the data display options.

Data Display for the Sun

The amount of information available for each target is currently a little variable – Earth and the Sun, for example, have a lot more data options available for them, including panels for their atmospheres as well as internal structures (blame me for that – I may have overloaded Mito and the team with text!). Surface features are also now annotated for them, and for the Moon, allowing specific points / features to be focused upon and dedicated information panels displayed for them. I confess I wasn’t involved in these panels, but now I’ve seen them, I hope very much that Mito and the team will include a similar approach for the other planets as well – such as coverage of Olympus Mons, Gale Crater, Gusev Crater, the Vallis Marineris on Mars; Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, and so on.

An additional surface features pop-up panel for Earth

Some of the planetary data display pages now also include videos, provided courtesy of NASA. The pages for the Sun, the Moon and Mars all now incorporate optional videos, one of which features the upcoming MAVEN mission to study the upper atmosphere of Mars, and which is scheduled for launch at the end of 2013.

Ace of Space

This update also includes a very simple game as well. Called Ace of Space, This is essentially racing a small spaceship around the eight planets of the solar system, passing just close enough to each to make a checkpoint. The race is against the clock, and planets can be tackled in any order (although there is a degree of planetary alignment which can be used if you hit on the right course). Controls are simple – the arrow keys, with UP firing your main engines and DOWN firing your retro motors (both burning your fuel allowance, which can be renewed), and LEFT and RIGHT turning your ship. For those that feel up to it, you can also activate the planets’ gravity wells, which you can use to assist your flight – as long as you’re careful!

Flying past Mars in Ace of Space

Ace of Space is lighthearted fun, and includes a “free flight” mode. It’s hopefully a sign of more sophisticated space flight / exploratory capabilities will be added to SunAeon as time goes on, in accordance with the original roadmap for the site. The game can also be downloaded, for those who prefer to play it directly on their desktop / laptop, and the code is available to embed into webpages as well. If I have any critique at all, it is that the only way to get back to the main SunAeon solar system model appear to be going via the HELP option in the game or clicking the BACK button on your browser – an on-screen option would make things easier.

This is another nice update to SunAeon, and I’m again honoured in being asked to assist with a small part of it. I’m now looking forward to seeing it grow to include more details on the planets, moons and other bodies in our solar system.

The Solar System is seen from space with SunAeon

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“We have whole planets to explore…” – A return to SunAeon

In April, I wrote about a new collaborative effort to build an interactive, immersive on-line guide to the Solar System and space exploration called SunAeon. Since then, the team behind the project have been hard at work, added features and capabilities, producing special updates – such as their model charting the recent transit of Venus). Today they launched a further update to the site – and I’m taking a little time out not only to report on it, but also (being totally honest) tooting my own horn a little – as I’ve been able to make a small contribution to the site.

The first notable change on visiting the SunAeon website is that the portal front page has been removed, and that after the familiar tree has been displayed, you’re taken directly to a Solar System view.

The new Solar System display at SunAeon

This now features a number of buttons and controls:

  • Top left:
    • SunAeon: opens a small menu that allows you to display a planet directly on your screen or see the SunAeon team’s biographies or a list of founding members or to visit the SunAeon Facebook page
    • Solar System: clears the SunAeon menu and returns you to the Solar System view
  • Find Planet: Located on the left of the screen, further down from the SunAeon and Solar System buttons, this opens a list of the eight planets of the Solar System (yes, eight planets of the Solar System now that Pluto has been downgraded), allowing you to select the one you wish to explore
  • Top right:
    • Volume: activates / mutes the music stream
    • Full screen: displays SunAeon full screen and sans adverts
    • Settings: opens the settings options, of which more below
  • View Settings: located further down the right side of the screen, this displays sliders allowing you to set the relative size of the model and planets on your screen – the more to the left the sliders are set, the more “real life” the planet sizes and relative distances between them. You can also add orbital paths around the sun and tag the planets with their names
  • Zoom: located bottom right, this allows you to zoom in and out of the model.

You can explore the planets in a number of ways:

  • Via the SunAeon – > Explore Planet list OR by DOUBLE clicking on a planet
    • Either option will zoom you immediately into the planet and display the planet’s information and data page
  • Selecting a planet using the Find Planet button OR by clicking ONCE on a planet:
    • Either option will focus the planet on your screen and circle it
    • Additional buttons will appear alongside the zoom button at the bottom right of your screen
    • An Explore Planet button will be displayed under the Find Planet button
Selecting a planet: additional buttons and options

The additional buttons in the lower right corner of the display allow you to:

  • Additionally focus on / zoom out from the selected planet (left)
  • Zoom in / out on the selected planet (middle)
  • Once zoomed on the planet, you can use the original zoom button (right) to adjust the proximity of your zoom on the planet.
Focused on Venus and zoomed in using the additional controls (bottom centre right) – use the zoom scale to further zoom in as required

Planetary Data Pages

When zoomed-in on a planet, you can click on the Explore Planet option to display the associated information and data (or you can go directly to the page by double-clicking on the planet or via the SunAeon menu, as described above).

This displays some basic information about the planet, in a scrollable window.

Basic planetary information

To the left of the planet are three buttons:

  • The planet button:
    • Click on the planet’s name to display the basic information window or
    • Click the right arrow under the planet’s name to open a list of planets and go directly to its information and data display (clicking the left arrow will close the list)
  • The structure button: click this to display basic information on the planet’s structure and (where relevant) atmosphere (see below)
  • Solar System: click this to return to the Solar System view.
Basic planetary structure information

I was very honoured to be asked by the team to provide the text for both the information and the planetary structure windows, and am very pleased – not to mention proud – that the material I was able to provide has been of use to the team and helped them further develop the site.

Note that when zoomed-in to a planet in the Solar System view, or when displaying the basic information about the planet, you can still rotate it on your screen by click-holding the left mouse button and then moving your mouse. You can also use this method to rotate the entire solar system in your field of view.

Settings Options

The embedded media player

The settings button (top right of the SunAeon display allows you to set the overall quality of the displayed images (very noticeable difference in the Solar System view).

From here you can also access the built-in media player to set the volume for the site’s music and select the track from which you want it to start playing.  The pieces Travis Fitzsimmons produced for earlier models by the team have now been integrated into this model to provide further variety of musical options. You can leave the player open on your screen, or simply select a piece and then close it – the player will cycle through the pieces automatically.

The beautiful shepherded rings of Saturn


SunAeon continues to grow and add functionality, and as such continued to grow as a learning tool that opens up the Solar System to anyone with a computer (capable of running Flash!). I’m proud to have been asked to contribute to the website, and hope that I’ll be able to further help in its development in the coming months / years.

A high quality, full-screen image from SunAeon – note the dust clouds around the “ices”of the Kuiper belt

* The title for this piece is taken from a piece written by Francis “Dick” Scobee, Commander of STS-51L. The quote reads in full: “We have whole planets to explore, we have new worlds to build, we have a Solar System to roam in. And even if only a tiny fraction of the human race reaches out towards space, the work they do there will totally change the lives of all the billions who remain on Earth.”

Transit of Venus

SunAeon has added a new model to their website: Transit of Venus. As the name suggests, it tracks the forthcoming transit of Venus across the disk of the sun which will occur on the 5th / 6th June 2012, and allows you to experience the transit, even if it is not visible from your location at the time the event occurs.

Transits of Venus across the disk of the Sun are among the rarest of planetary alignments. Only seven have occurred since the invention of the telescope (1631, 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882 and 2004). Such transits are only possible during early December and early June when Venus’s orbital nodes pass across the Sun, and have a pattern of recurrence at intervals of 8 and 121.5 years, then 8 and 105.5 years. This means that the next close pairing of transits will occur over a century from now in December 2117 (105 years from this year’s transit) and December 2125.

According to NASA, “The entire transit (all four contacts) is visible from northwestern North America, Hawaii, the western Pacific, northern Asia, Japan, Korea, eastern China, Philippines, eastern Australia, and New Zealand. The Sun sets while the transit is still in progress from most of North America, the Caribbean, and northwest South America. Similarly, the transit is already in progress at sunrise for observers in central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and eastern Africa,. No portion of the transit will be visible from Portugal or southern Spain, western Africa, and the southeastern 2/3 of South America.”

The SunAeon Transit of Venus model

The SunAeon model is an animated representation of the transit, showing all four contacts together with a timeline of events at the bottom. Starting the model with advance the animation through the entire transit sequence, with annotations clearly showing if / when any portion of the transit is visible from your geographic location – making it a handy tool for determining if you want to observe the transit for yourself (and if you do, please observe safe methods of doing so).

For those running astronomy websites, the model also includes a tool for generating code which can be used to embed it in your site.

Venus in transit and the four contacts (circled) in the model

About SunAeon

SunAeon is an educational / immersive project being run by a small team based in Slovakia. It presents an interactive model of the solar system users can explore at leisure, visiting worlds examining data, etc. The team is planning to add further models to the main SunAeon portal, together with other features, including opportunities for social interaction.

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“All these worlds are yours…”: the majestic vision of SunAeon

Immersive, virtual environments come in many forms – and those developing them are seeking some novel approaches to developing such spaces that can be interactive on both an individual and a social footing.

Last year, I explored The Blu, which took this idea into the oceans of the world, allowing people to explore water, collect fish, interact with one another and create content with which to populate the various oceans.

Yesterday, I was pointed to another immersive environment which is still in what might be called a “beta” (or at least, start-up) phase, one which takes a far grander setting in which to immerse users: the cosmos around us.

SunAeon is an amazing educational / immersive project being run by a small team based in Slovakia, who have already cut their teeth producing a number of 3D interactive services including Sun / Moon Scope (which shows the current position of the sun and Moon (with the current phase of the latter) from your location, at either the current time or any given time of day) and Astrology Scope (which is an interactive guide to astrology).

The team’s latest project is the Solar System, a fabulous interactive model of the Solar System that is still under development, and which builds on much of the experience the team gained in building Solar System Scope, itself a unique and immersive study of the solar system and the stars around us.

The SunAeon portal

Solar System is the first step in a new SunAeon portal site that will present various elements of astronomy and space exploration aimed at the astronomy / space enthusiast, the armchair hobbyist and at education. As well as providing a unique means of learning about our solar system and the cosmos as a whole, the overall aim of the portal is to eventually include a rich diversity of content, including multi-player games and a range of social engagement options. No special software is required and nothing needs to be downloaded or installed. Everything runs directly on your browser, making accessing the portal a simple matter of clicking on the URL.

Solar System, as its name suggests, is a beautifully rendered 3D model of the solar system that provides users with an immersive means to discover and explore the worlds around us. The solar system itself is presented in two views: “model” and “real”, the key difference between the two being that of relative scale (see below). There is also a “cinematic” mode that takes you on a tour of the “model” view of the Solar system, the camera sweeping from planet to planet.

SunAeon “model” view (click to enlarge)
SunAeon’s “real” view of the solar system (click to enlarge)

In either view, you can use the mouse to scroll around the solar system and view it from different angles. You can also zoom in/out using the vertical slider on the right of the display. To zoom in on a planet, hover the mouse pointer over it so it is outlined (easier in “model” view) and double-click.

Once zoomed-in on a planet, you can either orbit around it using the mouse, viewing it from the “day” or “night” sides or even across the terminator – or you can use a set of media controls to observe the planet as it rotates about its axis. Relative rotations are in “real time” comparative to one another, meaning that there is a marked difference between the observable rotation of say, Jupiter (which completes one rotation every 10 hours), and Venus (which completes one rotation every 243 days). Buttons on the media control panel allow you to speed-up planetary rotation if you wish.

Earth by day … (click to enlarge)
…and by night (click to enlarge)

The media controls are also available from the main Solar System page, where you can view all the planets currently modelled and set them rotating about their axes and travelling in their orbits around the sun. In the model view, and seen from overhead, this offers a very visual means of demonstrating “close approaches” between planets.

At the moment, Earth is the most animated of the planets: as you orbit it / allow it to rotate, you can see cloud swirling and moving through the atmosphere on the day side, and the myriad lights of population centres across the night side of the globe. Other planets are currently more static in nature, although the team are working to change this with a module called Planetary Explorer, which will present the planets more dynamically.

The first phase of this tool was rolled out as this article was in preparation: alongside each planet is a clickable drop-down window that displays basic data on the planet. Over time, the capabilities of the Explorer will be enhances, as SunAeon team member Mito Sadlon explained to me, “You’ll be able to use it to observe the surface and atmosphere of each planet. We’ll have a more extended version of the Explorer available in the coming weeks.”

Phase one of the Planetary Explorer – launched while this article was being prepared

Also missing, as the keen-eyed will observe, are key elements of the solar system – such as Pluto and our own Moon. The team are working on adding these, and also the two captured Moons of Mars: Deimos and Phobos and the four Galilean moons of Jupiter: Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io.