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Thursday, January 23, 2014

3D printing the universe

When it comes to enjoying the wonders brought to us by the Hubble Space Telescope, blind people are really missing out. There's not much that can be done about that. Or is there? 

Carol Christian and Antonella Nota of the Space Telescope Institute have been recreating Hubble images using 3D printers. Not only are they trying to convey size and distance, but brightness as well, which requires a great deal of ingenuity. The astronomers and a team of software designers began incorporating tactile features such as heights and open circles to represent elements like dust and gas.


These images show people with visual impairments using their fingers to explore 3-D tactile representations of images taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. In these representations, stars, filaments, gas, and dust shown in Hubble images of the bright star cluster NGC 602 have been transformed through 3-D printing into textures, appearing as raised open circles, lines, and dots in the 3-D printout. These features also have different heights to correspond with their brightnesses. The tallest, and therefore brightest, features are a tight group of open circles, which represent the stars in the core of the cluster. 

Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Estacion (STScI).

While no one can claim that a blind person's experience with the plastic 3D printouts will approach that of a sighted person viewing a Hubble image, so far the test audience seems to be pleased. One hundred visually impaired people were not only able to enjoy the prototypes, but were able to identify astronomical features within them.



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