Jan.8, 2014

3D printers are used to create a vast variety of objects, including airplane parts, lamps, jewelry, and even artificial human bones. Now astronomers Carol Christian and Antonella Nota of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., are experimenting with 3D printing technology to turn images from the Hubble Space Telescope, a project of cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency, into tactile 3D printed pictures for visually impaired people.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Estacion/STScI

The duo started their project seven months ago when they received a small Hubble education and public outreach grant that allowed them to buy a 3D printer and 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 neighboring 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.

Turning this stunning 2D image into a 3D tactile picture involved plenty of trial and error. Christian and Nota admit their task is a challenge because astronomers really can't see space objects 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 sizes and brightnesses of space objects 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 guesswork and artistry to try to produce an object, which 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 printed tactile prototype in plastic showing the stars, filaments, gas, and dust seen in the visual image using textures such 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.

The 3D printouts of NGC 602 are just the first few baby steps toward Christian and Nota's 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.

To accomplish their goal, a team of experts in software design are developing inexpensive software to turn the measurements from Hubble images into something the 3D printers could successfully print.

So far, the group has tested the 3D printed prototype images with about 100 people with visual impairments and the testing has helped the group fine-tune the 3D representations. More than 60 of them provided feedback on the 3D tactile images of NGC 602. "These 3D images make me feel great because images of space objects were inaccessible and now all of a sudden they are accessible," said Nijat Worley of Baltimore. "Sure, we cannot see the image, so we don't know exactly what it looks like. It can never replace pictures, but with this 3D image you can get an idea of what it's supposed to look like and then use your imagination for the rest."

Natalie Shaheen, director of education for the National Federation of the Blind, believes the 3D technology opens a new way to provide access to information for the blind. "The nice thing about 3D printing is that it's a mainstream technology," Shaheen said. "It is not specific to blindness. There are many people who want and need and have 3D printers who are not blind. Three-dimensional technology shows that you don't have to have some blindness-specific technology necessarily in order to provide a blind person with access to information."

Christian and Nota's long-term 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.

"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." Nota said.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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ND wrote at 1/8/2014 4:34:02 PM:

That is very cool. I bet there are many ways just waiting to be thought up that we can utilize 3d printing.

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