3D Printing the Universe

Despite our very limited abilities to travel to distant objects in outer space that can be thousands of light years — if not millions or billions of light years away from Earth — astronomers, computer scientists, and other specialists have been developing 3D models of the stars with data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space telescope and other telescopes. The 3D modeling and printing of objects in our Universe offer unique tools to understanding scientific data.

Scientists at the Chandra X-ray Observatory Center have worked with students from the National Federation of the Blind YouthSlam summer program to improve the 3D prints. The materials were then further tested and piloted with programs through UNESCO, the International Astronomical Union, NASA centers & additional communities of people who are blind or low vision. 

Best Practices for 3D Prints

The best practices recommended included:

  • Size: bigger = better, larger 3D print size allows more detail to be handled tactilely (about 6-8” minimum, up to 12” if feasible)
  • Resolution: smoother = better, improved information processing and better information gleaning
  • Quality: stronger = better, always reinforce joints, jets, or weak areas, for detailed handling
  • Access: Cut whole models of objects in half when feasible; can reattach sliced parts with internal magnets
  • Quantity: more models and more content were desired.
  • Universal design: these approaches help more users everywhere!

All of the 3D printable files are available free online at http://chandra.si.edu/3dprint and http://chandra.si.edu/tactile.

Available 3D Kits

We also offer two kits of the 3D prints by special request to Kim Arcand (free, but with limited availability). The Touchable Universe kit contains five 3D prints created from NASA data including three models from Chandra: Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (which also uses NASA infrared and ground-based optical data), Supernova 1987a, and the double star system and nova V745 SCO; as well as two models from Hubble and other data: Eta Carina, a bright star system, and the star-formation region known commonly as the Pillars of Creation.

Touchable Universe Kit

Here's what you'll find inside:

  • Five 3D prints:
    • Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A
    • Supernova 1987a
    • Double Star System and Nova V745 SCO
    • Eta Carina
    • Pillars of Creation (also known as the Eagle Nebula).
  • Audio files with descriptions for each of the 5 3D-printed objects included.
  • A tactile and Braille poster series mounted on still styrene that cover science topics of eruptions, shadows, wind, erosion, outflows, seeding and spirals.
  • Audio files of the text from the Braille panels.

Image 1: Touchable Kit

Touchable Kit: Box with 3D printed models along with print, braille and audio files.

Mini Stars Kit

Our smaller Mini Stars Kit explores three examples of stellar objects in our own cosmic backyard, the Milky Way galaxy, that we can feel in 3D through the mapping of direct observations in the sky. The set includes a region of star birth (M16/Pillars), a mature star system (Eta Carinae), and an exploded star that left behind a dense core (Crab Nebula).

Mini Tour

Take a mini tour of our 3D printable Universe with some of these examples of our 3D prints:

Supernova 1987A

On February 23, 1987, astronomers noticed a new source of light in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. Scientists realized that this new beacon was, in fact, an explosion caused by the death of a massive star. It was a supernova, and became known as Supernova 1987A, or SN87A for short. This 3D print maps the SN87A supernova remnant at its current observed age of 30 years. The blast wave from the supernova has crashed into a pre-existing ring of gas, throwing blobs of this gas upwards and downwards.

Cassiopeia A

The Cassiopeia A supernova remnant was created when a massive star ran out of fuel and exploded, hurtling its outer layers into space at millions of miles per hour. The 3D model maps its two main features: a spherical component in the outer parts of the remnant and a flattened (disk-like) one in the inner region. The spherical piece reveals the outer layer of the star that exploded and drove a spherical blast wave into gas surrounding the star. The flattened component consists of the inner layers of the star. High-velocity jets of this material are shooting out from the explosion in multiple directions.

Image 2: A 3D printed model of Cassiopeia A, cut in half.

Photo of 3D printed model of Cassiopeia A, cut in half.

Pillars of Creation (M16)

M16, also called the Pillars of Creation, is a nearby star-forming region. The Pillars, which are sometimes called elephant trunks due to their shape, are an example of the column-like shapes that develop in giant clouds of gas and dust that are the birthplaces of new stars. This 3D model depicts details about the orientation of the Pillars in space, mostly that the Pillars actually consist of several distinct pieces on either side of a star cluster. In this model, note that the relative distance between the pillars is not to scale.

Eta Carinae

In the middle of the 19th century, the massive binary system Eta Carinae underwent an eruption that ejected at least 10 times the sun's mass and made it the second-brightest star in the sky. As a part of this event, which astronomers call the Great Eruption, the gaseous shell formed a twin-lobed dust-filled cloud known as the Homunculus Nebula, which is now about 10 trillion kilometers long and continues to expand at more than 2.1 million kilometers per hour. This 3D print of the Homunculus Nebula reveals protrusions, trenches, holes and irregularities in the gaseous material.

Click to download 3D Model files here:

Tactile Universe

Click below to watch the TEDx talk on this topic, "How to Hold a Dead Star in Your Hand"