Three-dimensional (3D) printers are transforming the business, medical, and consumer landscape by creating a vast variety of objects, including aeroplane parts, lamps, jewellery, and even artificial human bones.
Now astronomers Carol Christian (STScI, Baltimore) and Antonella Nota (ESA and STScI, Baltimore) are experimenting with the technology to transform astronomy education, turning images from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope into tactile 3D pictures for people who cannot explore celestial wonders visually. Nota and Christian present their 3D representations at a press conference today, 7 January 2014, at the American Astronomical meeting in Washington, DC, USA.
The project started when Christian was granted a Hubble education and public outreach grant, which allowed the purchase of a 3D printer in order to experiment with the technology to make Hubble tactile images. They started with a Hubble image of the bright star cluster NGC 602, located in our neighbouring galaxy the Small Magellanic Cloud. The Hubble portrait reveals the brilliant blue glow of newly formed stars nestled within a cavity of gas and dust, shaped like a geode. Their aim was to create 3D pictures that allow visually impaired people to feel what they cannot see and form a picture of the cluster in their minds. Christian and Nota admit that their task is a challenge because astronomers really can’t see objects in space in three dimensions.
“It’s very easy to take any tool or object that you can actually measure and produce a 3D printout,” Nota said. “But it’s very hard to think of an astronomical object about which you know very little. You can measure the size and brightnesses of objects in space from the images, as well as some of the distances. But it’s really hard to understand their 3D structure. The work is scientific, but it’s also artistry to try to produce an object that, when printed, will look like the image that Hubble has taken. So, we are basically designing the process from scratch.”
So far, the scientists have developed 3D tactile prototypes in plastic showing the stars, filaments, gas, and dust seen in the visual image using textures as raised open circles, lines, and dots in the 3D printout. These features also have different heights to correspond with their brightness. The tallest, and therefore brightest, features are a tight group of open circles, which represent the stars in the core of the cluster. These printouts are the first few baby steps towards their ultimate goal of creating a 3D model of the cluster in the shape of a geode that people will be able to hold in their hands and study.
“Imagine making a simulation that you fly through visually, and as you fly through, first you encounter filaments, and then you see some dust and also some stars,” Christian said. “As you fly to the back side of the cavity, you see other features. I want to represent that in 3D and have people feel it with their fingers because they can’t see it. They would be able to spatially understand where the important features are relative to everything else and what the structure is. We may have to do it in layers, or we may have to do it in some other way. At this point we’re jumping off the platform and seeing what happens.”
So far, the group has tested the prototypes with about 100 people with visual impairments at several events sponsored by the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind (NFB). Early low-resolution prototypes were created in partnership with Amy Hurst and Shaun Kane at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Tested at the NFB’s national convention in July 2013, they early prototypes gave a glimpse of the potential that the technology could have for astronomy.
Christian and Nota’s goal is to produce 3D tactile pictures of all Hubble images and make them available online to schools, libraries, and the public to print using 3D printers. “Our ultimate goal of having the 3D image files available to everybody is for the long-term future,” Nota said. “But you have to think big when you’re doing something like this. Maybe sometime in the future you will be able to press a button and out comes the object Hubble has imaged, and you will be able to hold it in your hands.”