Meet the Masters: Salvatore Orlando

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About Me

My name is Salvatore Orlando and I am an astrophysicist who works at the Astronomical Observatory of Palermo (OAPa), one of the research centers of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF). I have long-term experience (> 20 years) in multidimensional modeling of astrophysical phenomena including:

  • The dynamics of magnetic structures in solar and stellar coronae.
  • The mass accretion process in young forming stars.
  • The evolution of nova explosions, transient phenomena that lead to the sudden appearance of a bright (apparently) new star (a nova).
  • The evolution of supernova explosions (the final fate of massive stars) and their outcome, supernova remnants.
  • The effects of the acceleration of cosmic ray particles on the evolution of supernova remnants.

As part of my research activity, I have developed hydrodynamic and magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) models, implemented with parallel numerical codes that run on High Performance Computing (HPC) systems and Grid/HPC infrastructures. The models are used to investigate the physical processes governing different astronomical objects. I have also developed numerical tools for the synthesis of observables (e.g., thermal and non-thermal emission from astrophysical plasma) from models and coupled these tools with hydrodynamic and MHD codes. In this way, the models can also be used as a powerful tool for the interpretation of astronomical observations.

If you want to know more about me, please visit my professional web page, my ArtStation profile, where I publish scientific illustrations and visualizations of astrophysical phenomena and, of course, my Sketchfab page.

My Expertise

My main expertise is in the development of physical models which describe different astronomical objects. These models represent a challenge in standard data visualization for scientific purposes, for the amount of processed data and the wealth of scientific information they contain. Recently, the potential of virtual reality hardware and software began to be exploited for the purposes of scientific data analysis. Moreover, virtual reality has also been adopted in different fields of public outreach and education with excellent outcome. In light of this, my interest in scientific modeling combined with my passion for astrophysics has led me to develop skills in the field of 3D model visualization, virtual reality, and augmented reality. I started 3D modeling combined with virtual and augmented reality in early 2019, using commonly applied tools for analyzing and visualizing scientific models (e.g., ParaView, Visit, IDL).  Quickly, I learned about other tools mainly used to develop models for video games, science fiction movies, etc. (e.g., Unreal Engine, Blender, MeshLab, MeshMixer). Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time to learn and familiarize myself with these latest tools, so all of my current models have been developed with the tools I’m most familiar with.

The general workflow I follow for creating my models combines the use of the hydrodynamic and magnetohydrodynamic models developed for scientific purposes, the MeshMixer and MeshLab tools to modify the models or create original meshes (for example, to create the landscape of alien planets) and the Paraview software to prepare the scene by combining different meshes and textures. The 3D representations of the models are made using a mixed technique consisting of multilayer isodensity surfaces with different opacities to quickly have a virtual reality representation of the models.

Probably the most difficult effect to be realized in these models is the diffuse semi-opaque gas and plasma that is ubiquitous in space (e.g., the interstellar clouds in star-forming regions or the extended coronae of stars or the stellar debris in supernova remnants). This is achieved through the creation of complex meshes in which the grid points are randomized and the faces of the meshes are intertwined; the gas effect is completed by selecting appropriate transparency of the faces of the meshes, according to some properties encoded in specific textures.

How I Use Sketchfab

After discovering Sketchfab in August 2019, I started testing the platform by uploading some of my models and sending the corresponding links to colleagues and interested people to get their opinion on the representation of the models and the impact of the virtual reality experience. The feedback was enthusiastic and this encouraged me to improve my models on Sketchfab and expand the number of models available through the platform. Now I use Sketchfab as a portfolio for presenting the results of my scientific research and as a platform for public outreach purposes.

My first assets were the scientific models developed for professional scientific studies in astrophysics. They are based on sophisticated hydrodynamic and MHD simulations produced by parallel numerical codes, using supercomputers made of thousands of CPUs hosted at international HPC facilities. From the scientific simulations, I started producing interactive 3D models uploaded to Sketchfab. All these scientific models have been developed to illustrate some astrophysical phenomena and objects that have been studied by professional astrophysicists and to give everyone the opportunity to visit and explore them in virtual reality. The collection “Universe in hands” reports these scientific models.

Universe in hands by Salvatore Orlando on Sketchfab

The assets derived from scientific simulations have been very successful during public outreach events and among non-experts.  This positive reception encouraged me to go beyond numerical simulations. So I started creating new models based on my imagination, illustrating astrophysical objects but rigorously based on our current knowledge of these phenomena. The first collection of this new class of resources was “The art of Astrophysical Phenomena” where it is possible to visit and explore artists’ views of astrophysical phenomena and objects. Then I created two additional collections: “Anatomy of Astrophysical Objects” and “The Science of Science Fiction”. The first collection reports schematic representations of the structure of astrophysical objects based on our knowledge. The assets of the second collection spot famous science fiction movies to highlight whether and in which parts they get the science right (thus providing accurate and plausible science).

Work For The Sketchfab Masters

My main aim as Sketchfab Master is to produce original models to illustrate the structure and dynamics of distant astronomical objects and the processes governing different astrophysical phenomena. My dream is to create a virtual universe in which I and astronomy lovers have the ability to explore distant astronomical objects that, otherwise, would be impossible to visit and, in some cases, to observe even with the most powerful telescopes in the world. At the same time, I use my models to produce images and movies for public outreach purposes. In this way, I act as ambassador for Sketchfab, promoting the Sketchfab models on social media and attracting the interest of people to the platform. For instance, some of my assets were used to create a series of nine videos describing astrophysical objects and phenomena, available in Italian (SocialMente: condividiAMO l’universo) and in English (Universe in hands). Assets from my collections were used by NASA to make a series of 3D visualizations of astronomical objects observed with X-ray observatories and 3D print kits have been produced for people with visual impairments. Other models illustrating five of the most popular supernova remnants in our Galaxy were used to build a standalone application called “StarBlast” which exploits the power of virtual reality for the dissemination and educational projects within the scientific activities of the international PHAROS project.

Some of my assets on Sketchfab have also been used in scientific press releases to illustrate significant recent discoveries in astrophysics. For instance, my model describing the dynamic environment of a newly formed star, which can be accessed through this link, was featured in the press release of the “Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society,” a prestigious professional journal in astrophysics, as well as in other astronomical magazines. Furthermore, two other assets, describing supernova 1987A and its pulsar, were employed in a NASA press release, which was subsequently mirrored by numerous websites (see, for instance, this link).



Want to learn more about the talented and diverse group of Sketchfab Masters? Click here.

About the author

Salvatore Orlando

I am an astrophysicist at the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF). My main research activity is performed in the field of supernovae, supernova remnants, young stellar objects, solar and stellar coronae. My skills include: plasma physics, magnetohydrodynamics, computational fluid dynamics and high performance computing.

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