Dec 15, 2015 | By Alec

3D printers have slowly and very successfully been creeping into the aerospace industry, where giants like NASA are even embracing the technology as a way of manufacturing spacecraft parts on long-term missions in the future. But that doesn’t mean that regular FDM 3D printers can’t contribute something to our understanding of the galaxy around us either. As one scientist from the University of California, Riverside, explains, a regular desktop model can even be used to gain further understanding of the complex processes of galaxy formation.

While that sounds impossible, Miguel Aragón-Calvo, who is a visiting assistant researcher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Riverside, explains that it is actually very straightforward. The method he uses is not unlike the way we 3D print toys and other CAD models. Aragón-Calvo is a specialist in galaxy formation and the development of universe-wide (cosmic) structures. He is working to develop an automated method for identifying and tracking cosmic developments over time with the help of some computer simulations.

During that complex study, he realized that he is essentially working with autonomously changing, highly complex CAD models that are very difficult to image. "These problems in cosmology are very difficult to visualize, even using computer graphics," he explains on his university’s website. "By 3D-printing them I am able to interact directly with the models and 'see' the problem at once. In some cases this results in 'eureka' moments."

In fact, these computer simulations rely on identifying the forms and transformations of structures, but it is very difficult to see exactly how links are made – especially as most models are 2D. "This is usually done by identifying structures at different times and then somehow linking structures in adjacent times," he explained. "Current techniques using this approach are far from optimal."

His 3D printing solution is in fact far simpler and more effective. The third dimension is assigned to time, something which is far easier seen in tangible models. "Tridimensional cosmic structures can be easily identified and tracked as four-dimensional objects where time is taken as another spatial variable," he explained. "Even though I had visualized the cosmic web many times before in the computer screen, the solution only became obvious once I held the model in my hand."

While it sounds childishly simple that you need to hold something in your hand to understand it, Aragón-Calvo believes that tactile information gained from tangible objects is one of the most efficient data gathering methods for our brains – something people of all ages do. "Babies learn by observing and touching, even placing objects in their mouth in order to gain more information," he says. "By touching a 3D-printed model, by turning it over in your hands, we can often acquire the kind of information that our visual sense alone cannot provide."

In fact, this method has already proven so successful that Aragón-Calvo has already developed a new model of galaxy formation, which is forthcoming "I often 'play' with 3D models of galaxies in their early stages in order to get new ideas on how gas gets injected into them to produce stars," Aragón-Calvo explained. "This has been very helpful in developing a model of galaxy formation that I will soon submit to a peer-reviewed journal."



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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