Explore the Universe With Astronomy 3D

Astronomy 3d is a powerful new way to experience the Universe. It enables you to explore and learn about planets, moons, stars, asteroids and even galaxies and their planetary nebulae.

Astrophysicist Nia Imara uses models that fit in her hand to unravel the structural complexities of star-forming clouds. The models reveal patterns from 2D dust maps that are often challenging to see in simulations.

3D Models

3D models help astronomers visualize complex structures and data. These models can include star systems, asteroids and comets, the Sun and the planets of our solar system, galaxy clusters, quasars, black holes, nebulae, and more.

This activity series takes participants through the basics of 3D modeling in astronomy using free, browser-based Tinkercad software. Students will learn to model simple shapes like disks and spheres, then move on to more complicated systems. Eventually, they can work with actual NASA data on exploding stars.

A new 3D model helps astronomers better understand the structures that form in molecular clouds—the giant clouds of gas and dust where stars are born. The model is a simulation of a star-forming region called M16, also known as the Pillars of Creation. It showcases the short-lived jets that emanate from the central star in this nebula, and the symmetric rings that appear as a result of those jets. These features would be difficult to discern with 2D projections.

3D Printing

Astronomers have been using 3D printers on the ISS to create tools and other parts that they can’t easily get from Earth. They are hoping that advanced manufacturing will help astronauts build habitats and land vehicles for long-duration missions and even planetary settlements.

The 3D printing process starts with a digital model, which is typically constructed in a CAD program. The data is then translated into the Stereolithography (STL) file format used by most 3D printers.

A prototype process was developed by Flatiron Institute researchers to turn astronomical images into a printable STL. They started with an image of a star-forming region called NGC 602, which was taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the Hubble Space Telescope. The result is both visually stunning and scientifically illuminating. Among other things, the print shows protrusions, trenches and holes in the dust-filled region. It also reveals the structure of the star system Eta Carinae and the star-formation region known as the Pillars of Creation.

3D Animation

One of the most exciting aspects of 3D astronomy is that it can be used to show how objects in space change over time. This is especially useful in helping students understand concepts like orbits and the movement of celestial bodies.

Using the free astronomy software program 3DAstronomer, you can watch a simulation evolve in real time and observe its three-dimensional structure. You can even view the instantaneous orbits of objects as they change over time in view windows, and see how their positions relate to one another.

Finnish photographer J-P Metsavainio uses a technique that converts astrophotographs to artificial volumetric models — which he then renders as animations. He does this by analyzing the image for hints (e.g., the pillar structures in a nebula point to its center, reflection nebulas are in front). Then he sculpts the model with complex surface shapes. His work demonstrates that these types of images can be rendered in 3D with just some tweaking.

Virtual Reality

Several projects have used VR for interactive 3D visualisation of astronomical data. These range from 3D catalogues to cosmological simulations and spectral imaging.

For example, in the first project presented here, researchers using data from Chandra, Spitzer and other telescopes created a virtual 3D model of the supernova remnant Cas A. This revealed a structure that would have been difficult to detect with standard 2D models.

Another project uses a novel approach to immersive display of volumetric data in full dome theatres. The iDaVIE-d system displays the researcher’s view of the data in a virtual graphics window on the headset, which is then rendered in real time on the dome surface with the appropriate fisheye distortion to match the curved geometry. The theatre audience sees this projection from their reclining seats as they watch the VR researcher interacting with the spectral cube.

The IVL team has explored a variety of physics driven 3D datasets using this system, including the 2MRS redshift survey and a cosmological simulation of galaxy-galaxy gravitational interaction. These demonstrate the ability of VR to provide a more natural way of exploring and analysing dynamic data sets, compared with standard 2D visualisation.

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