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Posted on February 4th, 2014

Out of This World – A Very Nebulous Nebulae

By now, you may be aware of how much I love the Hubble Space Telescope. I never grow tired of seeing new images its collected, or old images I’ve seen dozens of times. I am always in awe of our Universe thanks to Hubble and NASA. Until now I have never considered what a shame it would be to never be able to experience such beauty and majesty visually, to be able to ‘see science.’ Antonella Nota and Carol Christian at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD are working towards illuminating some of the Hubble images for the blind and visually impaired. With the use of three-dimensional printers, they are experimenting with transforming images into 3D printouts that can be explored by hand.

There are a couple of obvious hurdles that must be overcome to create 3D models of celestial bodies. The first being that a single image of an object from only one direction is not enough to create a 3D representation.  The data collected by Hubble, and other assisting sensors, measure things like distance, size and brightness across the electro-magnetic spectrum. These datasets are not the most helpful when the dimensions of an object are necessary for a 3D structure. So the creation of representative  models is one part science and one part art. With the help of You Can Do Astronomy, LLC, a company that works to make astronomy accessible to the visually impaired, they have managed to take an image of space and translate it into touchable art.

Different textures are used for different substances, like gas, filaments, dust and stars. Relative brightness is translated through varying heights, with the brightest objects protruding the furthest. With each element having its own texture, the visually impaired can see that dust gather around stars, even though the dust may be lines instead of dots and stars are hollow circles instead of bright objects. What makes this method so wonderful is how accessible it can be. 3D printers are becoming more prolific, they are used for many different use cases and needs. Creating these 3D representations doesn’t require software and tools that are exclusive to the visually impaired, making it more accessible and innovative for their community.

Christian and Nota hope to create a library of 3D Hubble images that can be accessed by schools, institutions and the public. It’s absolutely fantastic that the beauty of our Universe can be shared with people who would normally be unable to experience such wonder.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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