Astronomers Can Now Touch the Stars Thanks to 3D-printed Stellar Nurseries

An astrophysicist and artist has used 3D printing to create detailed resin spheres of stellar nurseries using data collected from these star-forming regions of space.

The resin globes made by Nia Imara, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, will allow astronomers to hold these vast clouds of gas and dust in the palm of their hands and study them in unprecedented detail.

Stellar nurseries—regions of intense star formation made up of molecular clouds of gas and dust—are the building blocks for infant stars and are vital for understanding how stars systems and galaxies evolve. However, because this material obscures the inner workings of stellar nurseries, astronomers can struggle to study them in fine detail.

"Stellar nurseries are invisible to human eyes, but these enormous celestial bodies, which can contain thousands or even millions of times the mass of the sun, are where stars are born," Imara told Newsweek. "Not only that, stellar nurseries, called molecular clouds by astronomers, play a big role in the evolution of galaxies. There are thousands of them in the Milky Way Galaxy.

"Our closest star, the Sun, was born in a molecular cloud some 5 billion years ago."

Imara describes her creations in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The 3D spheres, which are roughly the size of a baseball, grant the person holding them a detailed representation of the turbulent clouds of star-forming material found in these regions.

They also allow astronomers and astrophysicists to visualize structures within stellar nurseries, such as swirling clumps and wispy filaments of gas and dust.

Such a representation of these regions could help scientists understand the processes that are occurring there.

"Stellar nurseries have extremely complex morphologies. They're not round like stars or planets," Imara said. "Astronomers would like to understand how the intricate structure of stellar nurseries relates to the physics of star formation, but the observations we get with our telescopes have certain limitations.

"On the sky, molecular clouds appear flat, and we'd like to get a sense of their full 3D structure."

3D Printed Stellar Nursery Globes
These 3D printed spheres show stellar nurseries, areas of star formation, in intense detail. Saurabh Mhatre/Instagram

In order to create the spheres, Imara teamed up with John Forbes of the Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute, and James Weaver of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University.

Forbes created simulations representing a variety of conditions within the molecular clouds that make up stellar nurseries, with Weaver taking these simulations and transforming the data into a physical, 3D-printed object.

Forbes said in a UC Santa Cruz press release: "Just aesthetically they are really amazing to look at, and then you begin to notice the complex structures that are incredibly difficult to see with the usual techniques for visualizing these simulations."

The globes have an advantage over the traditional 2D representations of stellar nurseries that astronomers have relied on in the past as they allow scientists to rotate the 3D shape and trace particular threads through the sphere. This may result in the discovery that some regions that would normally appear separate are actually connected.

"The physical models allow us to explore stellar nurseries in a tangible way and to identify structures that are not readily apparent in observations or even images from computer simulations," Imara said.

The researchers note in their study that future 3D modeling of such regions could provide additional information with the use of color.

The next step for the 3D-printed models is to move them away from simulations of stellar nurseries, and apply them to the real thing.

The team has pinpointed the molecular clouds that make up the stellar nurseries of the constellation Orion as a target for modeling into a 3D globe.

This will allow the team and other astronomers to compare the 3D representation of Orion's stellar nurseries, to existing 2D counterparts

Nia Imara
Nia Imara, artist and astrophysicist, along with collaborators John Forbes and James Weaver, created the 3D printed spheres that show stellar nurseries in stunning detail. Nia Imara/Nia Imara

Caption Updated to include collaborators John Forbes and James Weaver.