As astronomers continue to delve deeper into the universe thanks to new technologies like the James Webb Space Telescope, deep space has never felt so close.
However, looking at a 2D image isn’t quite the same as getting the chance to get up close and personal with the many wonderful things scattered throughout the universe. For many people, including the visually impaired, being able to hold a physical object in their hand is the best way to identify it. Now that 3D printers are smaller and more affordable than ever, the ability to print, hold, and recognize just about anything is within the reach of many people.
Now includes space. To help put the stars in the hands of curious learners everywhere, authors Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory mission have written the upcoming book “Stars in Your Hand: A Guide to 3D Printing the Cosmos,” which will be published by MIT Press on September 20.
The following conversation has been edited for its length.
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Space.com: How did you get the idea for the book?
Kimberly Arcand: I first got interested in 3D printing, for example, at least a dozen years ago, I think. I have some colleagues at Smithsonian who were just starting to work on some 3D printing. They took me under their wings. They were working on 3D modeling and printing of President Obama’s head at the time. And I thought that was pretty cool. If they can do that, we can definitely figure out how to 3D print stars. So this was kind of a motivation to see others use it in other areas. Then came some opportunities in our day to day work to be able to work with some 3D modeling data, and we just tried. Since then it’s been kind of on a mainstay with accessibility for me, and it’s really important to be able to experiment with new data and new methods, and new approaches in order to provide different types of learners with different types of opportunities.
SPACE.com: I understand that the book was written as a side project away from your duties at NASA, but can you tell us a little bit about the kind of 3D printing you’re doing at Chandra?
Arcand: Chandra really inspired me to do my first 3D prints myself. And that’s because we worked with a really cool scientist, Tracy Delaney, who had designed [the supernova remnant] Cassiopeia A in three dimensions using Chandra, Spitzer data [Space Telescope] data and some terrestrial optical data. And I just thought this model was amazing.
Like, I’ve been looking at Cassiopeia A in two dimensions forever; It was the first bit of data I worked on from Chandra, the first image Chandra released quite a bit, like the one-hour watch, and to fast-forward over a dozen years to work on it in three dimensions – it seemed like a really exciting opportunity to push that circumstance even further. So getting it off a computer screen and putting it in someone’s hand is going to be a really great opportunity for people to be able to access this data that I had access to, that Megan can access, you know, that scientists have access to. But we wanted to enable more people to access it. And this kind of started me trying to figure out what other datasets would work well in 3D and how we could do that.
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It’s hard data. Not every bit of the data is going to be that high in resolution and it’s going to have a lot of information, you know, about which lights are moving away, and what’s heading towards them. So we’ve been looking at sort of a larger area of 3D modeling and 3D printing since then, so what can we look at as far as touch panels, which are basically like relief maps that provide 3D data in a different way.
Megan Watsky: I think 3D things are really a way of doing something different, you know. It’s not just your traditional “this is a flat, look at it, love it, move” kind of picture. And as much as we love pictures, you have the same problem with astronomy. Now, until very recently, when you had people looking at the sky from the ground for thousands of years, you couldn’t spot it, you couldn’t touch it, you couldn’t feel it, you couldn’t pick it up and bite it like you liked a rock or something and find out, what is it made of? So I think the idea of being able to add this new third dimension, to look at these things that have fascinated people for so long, was really appealing.
And it’s just a way to look at it differently, not just for the blind and visually impaired communities, which is obviously a great result, but for anyone who thinks differently, likes to experience things in a just invisible way. Hence I think that includes most people. I think you just get different things from it, no matter who you are, if you can hold something in your hand. So that was kind of our catalyst here.
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Space.com: Who wrote the book for? Who would you like to buy this book and go print these things?
Arcand: Well, I would say there are quite a few audience members. In my opinion, it is clear that the first audience is probably the makers of any genre; Learners fall into this category, too. But the idea that this would be useful for people who like to craft and tinker is really, really attractive. I think it’s always my goal to be able to open up new little pockets of opportunity for people who aren’t necessarily already immersed in astrophysics, true, a book like this might be attractive to someone who might be a maker, but not necessarily a fan of astronomy. And perhaps vice versa, this might be attractive to someone who is a fan of astronomy who has never done anything before and would like to, because of the opportunity to make some of these things for themselves. But I think in my head, I kind of pictured it as a really great opportunity for communities, spaces, libraries, schools.
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Watzke: I always like to think: What if someone, knowing nothing, unnecessarily picked this book, you know, about it and chose this book? Can they access information in a useful way, you know? I hope that. That was kind of our goal. So, you know, really, that’s a pretty broad answer — that we want everyone to pick it up — but we don’t want to deal with our popular books, we want people to feel like, “Well, I don’t know anything about this. I’m not afraid, I can pick it up and get something of it.”
SPACE.com: I can tell you that after I printed out my lunar surface model here, my kids were fascinated by it. Then my four-year-old daughter asked, “Where did all the holes come from?” And then that led to a short conversation about intense lunar bombardment. Because they’re so interested in space, but you know, they’re kids, they want to pick up and touch things. I think this book can be a really great learning experience for them.
Watzke: Yeah, going back to the audience, I think 3D printing is on that cliff, right? Like some people, some organizations have it privately or in a community setting, and I’m not sure if there is a lot of content. So we hope this contributes in an interesting way.
We always find astronomy, you know, a very welcoming science. There is not much politics involved. Almost everyone is fascinated by what is out there. So I mean, it’s a way to engage people, I think, whether it’s technology or the topic or something else, including kids.
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Space.com: Where did you find all the models in the book? Are they all open source?
Arcand: Almost everything in this book is a Creative Commons project or some kind of public project, because all of them were working on creating these kinds of projects for the greater good, if you will. Collaborators working on concrete towers usually do these things because they are trying to fill a need, if desired. So it was really exciting to be able to put together a list of these opportunities, to have so many people who have been working on this kind of modeling and 3D printing and to put it all together in one reference book.
Watzke: We tried to explain this in the book, but we didn’t make all of these models. Kim in particular has been working on 3D modeling, you know, she said, for a long time, but that’s more than just the sum of everything we found out at the time. Of course, it will constantly evolve. There are other models out there. But we tried to find those that were funded, you know, by NASA or other public entities.
Space.com: If there was one takeaway you hope a reader gets from your book, what would it be?
Arcand: I think, to be honest, the takeaway that I wish people would have probably isn’t necessarily given in the book, but what I’ve found over and over from projects that explore data through these different approaches, these different dimensions, is that very often people start In understanding that others explore things in different ways. So I think there’s a part of me that kind of hopes that people start to understand that we can learn about things in different ways, that people access data in different ways, that there’s different value and meaning-making from, in this case, 3D printing or 3D modeling something .
Watzke: I think we have an overarching core theme that we always hope will come true, which is that space and the universe should be explored and experienced by all. A lot of times, I feel like people think, “H, science isn’t quite right for me” or “I’m not a scientific person” or whatever that means. We want anyone to feel that science is something they can discover, and space is something they can enjoy and experience if they are interested in it. And maybe they don’t even know they’re interested in her, because they didn’t feel welcome. So, you know, if that’s a drop in that bucket, that’s cool. It’s just something we’ve tried to stress over the years, not that we don’t want people who really love space to buy the book. Because you know there are a lot of hardcore astronomy fans out there. We appreciate their interest in this kind of thing. But we always try to make a bigger science tent to make people feel welcome.
The stars in your hand: a guide to 3D printing the universe (Opens in a new tab)By MIT Press Released September 20th.