Jan 8, 2015 | By Simon

When it comes to the excitement centered around 3D printing, its uses go far beyond in-home localized manufacturing, rapid prototyping and printing complex pattern designs on chocolate cakes.   Among other applications that 3D printing has proven to be an extremely useful tool is in the area of space and interstellar research where complicated explanatory models can be generated from data and 3D printed to be explored physically.  

Yesterday, Astronomers from the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society discussed recent observations of the Eta Carinae star system and used 3D printed models to help advance the group’s current understanding of the system.

Located in the constellation of Carina, the Eta Carinae is considered to be the most luminous and mysterious star system within 10,000 light-years from Earth.  The two stars that make up the system erupted two times during the 19th Century and astronomers are still puzzled as to why the stars erupted.  Researchers believe that one of the stars may soon even detonate as a supernova.  

"We are coming to understand the present state and complex environment of this remarkable object, but we have a long way to go to explain Eta Carinae's past eruptions or to predict its future behavior," said NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astrophysicist Ted Gull.  Gull is responsible for coordinating the research group that has monitored the star over the past ten years.

During this time, the research group has developed models based on routine observations using ground-based telescopes and NASA satellites to gather their source imagery.  The group also relied on earlier observations to help craft what would ultimately be their most accurate model yet.

"We used past observations to construct a computer simulation, which helped us predict what we would see during the next cycle, and then we feed new observations back into the model to further refine it," added Thomas Madura, a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at Goddard and a theorist on the Eta Carinae team.

Using Madura’s models and simulations, the team was able to determine that a complex wind interaction within the system is responsible for the previously misunderstood behaviors.  To better visualize the interaction and study it further, Madura turned to 3D printing to convert his digital models into solid versions that were better-suited for explanatory purposes.  After printing the models on a consumer-grade 3D printer, the process revealed protrusions in the gas flow along the edges of the cavity, a feature that the research team hadn’t noticed before.

"We think these structures are real and that they form as a result of instabilities in the flow in the months around closest approach," Madura said. "I wanted to make 3-D prints of the simulations to better visualize them, which turned out to be far more successful than I ever imagined."

Using the 3D printed model, the researchers were able to determine that the winds from each start have entirely different properties.  While the primary star’s winds are dense and slower (approximately one million miles per hour), the hotter companion star’s winds are lighter and much faster (approximately six million miles per hour).

The explanation was possible due to the nature of which the digital model was printed.  The final model can be separated into two sections: one which contains the dense and slow wind while the other section contains the faster and lighter winds.  When the model is ‘sliced’ in half between the sections, the internal cavity reveals further details as to how both of the winds interact.  

“As far as we are aware these are the world’s first 3D prints of a supercomputer simulation of a complex astrophysical system,” Madura added.

As it stands, the stars will be racing together again in 2020 but NASA researchers aren’t expecting any catastrophic events to the system in the near future.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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