Astronomers Create 3D Printed Nebulae

Visualizations can inspire creative new ways of thinking about an object.  But holding that visualization in your hand adds a whole other level of impact to it.  That desire for impact has led Dr. Nia Imara, an astrophysicist and artist at UC Santa Cruz, to create the first-ever 3D printed models of stellar nurseries.

The printed spheres are more than just fancy baseball-sized marbles.  Their strands of different colorations represent the filaments and clumps of material naturally found in star-forming regions in space.  Dr. Imara worked with John Forbes at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics and James Weaver at Harvard to develop a suite of nine different models of the three forces that impact how stellar nurseries forms: turbulence, gravity, and magnetic fields.

Nia Imara – the astrophysicist/artist who developed the idea of 3D printing the spheres.
Credit – Nia Imara

Different patterns in the final marbles represent variations in those three forces. The added benefit of a third dimension of visualization allowed researchers to understand how those forces interact in ways never before considered. Lighter areas correspond to dense clumps of gas and dust, whereas the darker swirls represent the void of space itself.

Those intricate swirls resulted from a type of inkjet-like 3D printing process, which differs from the typical extrusion processes a standard desktop 3D printer uses.  It uses tiny drops of resin precisely deposited at certain locations to create the swirling, whimsical effects seen in the models.

Some of the 3D printed stellar nursery spheres.
Credit – Saurabh Mhatre

While undeniably pretty to look at, the structures themselves are also interesting from a scientific perspective.  Understanding how the filaments and clumps in the model interact based on the three forces is much easier to see when looking at a print of their shape rather than at data on a computer screen.  Additionally, some of the models were left half-completed, allowing scientists to look at a cross-section of what the inside of the nurseries would look like according to the model.

While science was certainly a driving force in the research, Dr. Imara mentioned a particular portrait she drew of herself grasping a star that made her originally conceive of this project.  But she very easily could have been inspired by an older pop culture reference – spoilers for a 25-year-old movie ahead.  In the original Men In Black, the heroes realize that what looks like a sphere on the cat Orion’s belt is actually a whole universe contained in the size of a marble.  While not quite that intricately detailed, Dr. Imara’s 3D printed models of stellar nurseries are the closest humanity has come to creating something like that for ourselves – and they are absolutely breathtaking.

Learn More:
USCS – Astronomers create the first 3D-printed stellar nurseries
Newsweek – Astronomers Can Now Touch the Stars Thanks to 3D-printed Stellar Nurseries
Cnet – Astronomers 3D-print stellar nurseries you can hold in your hand

Lead Image:
Some of the spheres were left half-finished to help visualize an interior layer of the molecular cloud.
Credit – Saurabh Mhatre