3D print the cosmos: An interview with the authors of 'Stars in Your Hand'

Cover art for 'Stars in Your Hand: A Guide to 3D Printing the Cosmos."
Cover art for 'Stars in Your Hand: A Guide to 3D Printing the Cosmos." (Image credit: The MIT Press)

As astronomers continue to peer deeper into the cosmos thanks to new technologies like the James Webb Space Telescope, deep space has never felt closer.

Still, looking at a two-dimensional image isn't quite like getting the chance to get up close and personal with the many wondrous objects spread out throughout the universe. For many people, including the visually impaired, being able to hold a physical object in one's hand is the best way to learn about it. Now that 3D printers have become smaller and more affordable than ever before, the ability to print and hold and learn about nearly anything is within reach for many folks.

That now includes space. To help put the stars literally in the hands of curious learners everywhere, authors Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke of NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory mission wrote the upcoming book "Stars in Your Hand: A Guide to 3D Printing the Cosmos," which will be released by MIT Press on Sept. 20.

The following conversation has been edited for length.

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'Stars in Your Hand: A Guide to 3D Printing the Cosmos' Get it on Amazon for just $21.95.

'Stars in Your Hand: A Guide to 3D Printing the Cosmos' offers an overview of how 3D printing can help anyone learn about space, spaceflight and astronomy. Get it on Amazon for just $21.95.

Space.com: How did you get the idea for the book?

Kimberly Arcand: I first started being interested in 3D printing, like, at least a dozen years ago, I'd say. I have some colleagues at the Smithsonian that were just starting to work on some 3D printing. And they sort of took me under their wing. They were working on 3D modeling and printing President Obama's head at the time. And I thought that was pretty darn cool. If they could do that, like, surely we could figure out how to 3D print stars. So that was sort of the impetus to seeing other people use it in other areas. And then some opportunities came along in our day job to be able to work with some 3D model data, and we just had a go at it. And ever since then, it's sort of taken on a major pillar of accessibility for me, that it's really important to be able to experience data and new means, new methods in order to just provide different kinds of learners with different kinds of opportunities.

Space.com: I understand that the book was written as a side project apart from your duties at NASA, but can you tell us a bit about what kind of 3D printing you do at Chandra?

Arcand: Chandra really was the inspiration for me doing my first 3D prints on my own. And that was because we had worked with a really cool scientist, Tracy Delaney, who had modeled [the supernova remnant] Cassiopeia A in three dimensions using Chandra data, Spitzer [Space Telescope] data and some ground-based optical data. And I just thought that model was incredible. 

Like, I'd been looking at Cassiopeia A in two dimensions for forever; it was the first bit of data I ever worked on from Chandra, the first image that  Chandra released just a tiny little bit, like one-hour observation, and to fast forward more than a dozen years to be working on it in three dimensions — it just seemed like a really interesting opportunity to push that envelope even more. So to get it out of the computer screen and put it into somebody's hand would be a very cool opportunity for people to be able to access this data that I had access to, that Megan could access, you know, that scientists could access. But we wanted more people to be able to access it. And that just kind of started me on a bit of a stretch of trying to figure out what other datasets would really work well in 3D and how we could do that.

A 3D printed model of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula in the Serpens constellation. Model by A. F. McLeod, J. E. Dale, A. Ginsburg, B. Ercolano, M. Gritschneder, S. Ramsay, and L. Testi, ESO/Hubble. (Image credit: Brett Tingley)

It's tricky data. Not every bit of data is going to be that high resolution and have that much information on, you know, of the lights moving away, and what's moving toward. So we've sort of looked at a larger area of 3D modeling and 3D printing since so what can we look at as far as tactile plates, which are essentially like relief maps that provide three dimensional data in a different kind of way.

Megan Watzke: I think that the 3D stuff is really a way to do something different, you know. It's not just your traditional "here's a flat image, look at it, love it, move on" kind of thing. And as much as we love images, you run up against the same problem in astronomy. Now, until very recently, when you had people looking at the sky from the ground for millennia, you just couldn't figure out, can't touch it, you can't feel it, you can't pick it up and bite it like you could like a rock or something and figure out, What's it made out of? So I think that the idea of being able to add this new, this third dimension, to looking at these objects that have fascinated people for so long, was really attractive. 

And it's just a way to look at it differently, not just for blind and low vision communities, which obviously, that's a great outcome, but for anyone who just kind of thinks differently, likes to experience things in just a non-visual way. And then I think that includes most people. I think just you get different things out of it, no matter who you are, if you can hold something in your hand. So that was kind of one of our motivators here.

A 3D-printed map of the Pegasus constellation. Model by the Star Coin Project by Bruce Bream, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. (Image credit: Brett Tingley)

Space.com: For whom did you write the book? Who do you want to buy this book and go and print these things?

Arcand: Well, I would say there's quite a few audience members. In my mind, the number one audience is probably makers of any kind, obviously; learners are falling into that category, too. But the idea that this would be useful for people who like to make and tinker is really, really attractive. I think it's always a goal of mine and Megan's to be able to open up new little pockets of opportunity for people who are not necessarily already enmeshed in in astrophysics, right, that a book like this might be attractive to someone who's perhaps a maker, but not necessarily a huge astronomy fan. And perhaps vice versa, this might be attractive to somebody who's an astronomy fan who's never done any making and would like to, because of the opportunity to make some of these things for themselves. But I think in my head, I've sort of pictured it as a really cool opportunity for maker spaces, community spaces, libraries and schools.


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Watzke: I always like to think: what if someone knows nothing, and they're picking this book up, you know, not necessarily about this topic and picks this book up? Can they access the information in a way that's, you know, useful? I hope so. That was sort of our goal. So, you know, really, that's a very broad answer — that we want everyone to pick it up — but we don't want to be gatekeeping with our popular books, we want people to feel like, "OK, I don't know anything about this. I'm not intimidated, and I can pick it up and get something out of it."

Space.com: I can tell you that after I printed my lunar surface model here, my kids were fascinated by it. And then my four-year-old daughter asked me, "where did all the holes come from?" And so then that led into a little conversation about lunar heavy bombardment. Because they're super interested in space, but you know, they're kids, they want to pick stuff up and touch it. I think this book could be a really cool learning experience for them.

Watzke: Yeah, and just going back to the audience, I think 3D printing is at this precipice, right? Like some people have it, some organizations have it privately or in a community setting, and I'm not sure if there's a ton of content. So hopefully, this contributes in a fun way. 

We always find that astronomy is very, as you guys know, it's a very welcoming science. There's not a lot of politics involved. And almost everyone's fascinated with what's out there. So I mean, it's a way to sort of get people engaged, I think, whether it's the technology or the subject or whatever, including kids.

A 3D model of the topography of the far side of the moon showing numerous craters. Model created by Doug Ellison, NASA/JPL. (Image credit: Brett Tingley)

Space.com: Where did you find all the models in the book? Are they all open source?

Arcand: Pretty much everything in this book is a Creative Commons or public domain type of project, because these are all people that have been working on creating these types of projects for the greater good, if you will. Collaborators who work on creating constellations that are tactile are usually doing those things because they're trying to fill a need, if you will. So it's been really exciting to be able to curate a list of these opportunities, and to have so many folks that have been working on this type of 3D modeling and printing and pull it all together into one reference book. 

Watzke: We tried to make this clear in the book, but we didn't make all these models. Kim in particular has worked on 3D modeling for, you know, as she said, a long time, but this is more of an aggregate of all that we found that was out there at the time. Of course, it's going to be ever evolving. And there are other models out there. But we did try to find the ones that were, you know, funded by NASA or other public entities. 

Space.com: If there's one takeaway that you hope a reader gets from your book, what would it be?

Arcand: I think, to be honest, the takeaway I hope people have is perhaps one that is not necessarily up front in the book, but just what I found over and over from projects that explore data through these different modalities, these different dimensions, is that oftentimes people start to understand that other people explore things in different ways. So I think there's a part of me that kind of hopes people start to understand that we can learn about things in different ways, that people access data in different ways, that there's just different value and meaning-making from, in this case, 3D printing or 3D modeling something.

Watzke: I think we have an overall underlying theme that we always hope comes through, which is that space and the universe is for everyone to discover and experience. Too often, I feel like people think, "Oh, science isn't quite for me" or "I'm not a science person" or whatever that means. We want anyone to feel like science is something they can discover, space is something they can enjoy and experience if they're interested in it. And maybe they don't even know they're interested in it, because they haven't felt welcome. So, you know, if this is a drop in that bucket, then that's great. It's just sort of a thing we've tried to emphasize over the years, not that we don't want people who already love space to buy the book. Because, you know there are so many hardcore astronomy fans out there. And we appreciate their interest in this kind of stuff. But we're always trying to make a bigger science tent for people to feel welcome.

'Stars in Your Hand: A Guide to 3D Printing the Cosmos' by The MIT Press will be released on Sept. 20. The book also has companion website at which you can find additional resources and 3D models ready to print. 

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Brett Tingley
Managing Editor, Space.com

Brett is curious about emerging aerospace technologies, alternative launch concepts, military space developments and uncrewed aircraft systems. Brett's work has appeared on Scientific American, The War Zone, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett enjoys skywatching throughout the dark skies of the Appalachian mountains.