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I am endlessly fascinated by the range and quality of images that are analysed and put out in the public domain from Hubble and other sources. We have come to see them as works of art as well as giving us insights into the origins of phenomena in space.

Here are some recent ones:



MARCH 17, 2014: This colorful Hubble Space Telescope mosaic of a small portion of the Monkey Head Nebula unveils a collection of carved knots of gas and dust silhouetted against glowing gas. The cloud is sculpted by ultraviolet light eating into the cool hydrogen gas. As the interstellar dust particles are warmed from the radiation from the stars in the center of the nebula, they heat up and begin to glow at infrared wavelengths, as captured by Hubble. The space photo superficially resembles the “The Great Wave” print by 19th century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.




This image shows a region of space containing a sample of dwarf galaxies studied by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Hiding among these thousands of galaxies are faint dwarf galaxies that resided in the early universe, between 2 and 6 billion years after the big bang, an important time period when most of the stars in the universe were formed. Some of these galaxies are undergoing a ferociously fast rate of star formation called “starbursts.” Astronomers are striving to deduce the galaxies’ contribution to star formation in this crucial era of the universe’s history. The image is part of the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOODS).






APRIL 3, 2014: If someone told you there was an object in space called “El Gordo” (Spanish for “the fat one”) you might imagine some kind of planet-eating monster straight out of a science fiction movie. The nickname refers to a monstrous cluster of galaxies that is being viewed at a time when the universe was just half of its current age of 13.8 billion years. This is an object of superlatives. It contains several hundred galaxies swarming around under a collective gravitational pull. The total mass of the cluster, and refined in new Hubble measurements, is estimated to be as much as 3 million billion stars like our Sun (about 3,000 times more massive than our own Milky Way galaxy) — though most of the mass is hidden away as dark matter. The cluster may be so huge because it is the result of a titanic collision and merger between two separate galaxy clusters. Thankfully, our Milky Way galaxy grew up in an uncluttered backwater region of the universe.


As well as considering the broader universe and minimising the pettiness of some aspects of life on earth, Hubble images are being used more creatively:



JANUARY 7, 2014: Three-dimensional printers are transforming the business, medical, and consumer landscape by creating a vast variety of objects, including airplane parts, football cleats, lamps, jewelry, and even artificial human bones.

Now astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., are experimenting with the innovative technology to transform astronomy education by turning images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope into tactile 3-D pictures for people who cannot explore celestial wonders by sight. The 3-D print design is also useful and intriguing for sighted people who have different learning styles. In the 3-D representations, stars, filaments, gas, and dust shown in Hubble images of the bright star cluster NGC 602 have been transformed through 3-D printing into textures, appearing as raised open circles, lines, and dots in the 3-D printout. These features also have different heights to correspond with their brightness.




A stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of the colorful 30 Doradus Nebula, a giant star-forming region, is the focal point of an eBook on stellar evolution aimed at children with visual impairments, ages 10 to 12. The book is called “Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn.” Its developers have issued the first chapter, which is being previewed at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society at National Harbor, Md. The ebook will available in Apple’s iBook store to download for free on iPads in the near future.

“Reach for the Stars” is the inspiration of astronomer Elena Sabbi of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., the lead researcher on the latest Hubble image of 30 Doradus, also known as the Tarantula Nebula. Sabbi and her collaborators are producing the book through a Hubble education and public outreach grant.

Although “Reach for the Stars” is being designed for children with visual impairments, Sabbi said that anyone can view and enjoy the book. “We hope it will be an inspiration and attract people to science,” she explained. “That’s the main goal. We want to convince children that science is cool, is fun, and that anybody could be a scientist, if they want to.” Sabbi and her STScI team are developing the book in partnership with SAS, a company based in Cary, N.C., that develops analytics software to help people analyze and visualize data. The company is working to make analytics and data visualization accessible to users of all abilities, including those with visual impairments.

Ed Summers, senior manager of accessibility and applied assisted technology at SAS, is spearheading the eBook’s development, leading a team of programmers, artists, and curriculum specialists. Summers, Sabbi, and Ada Lopez, a SAS science curriculum specialist, are the book’s co-authors. Like Sabbi, Summers agreed that “Touch the Stars” is not solely a book for blind children. “I feel strongly that people with disabilities don’t want separate materials,” he said. “We want to be able to access the same materials as everybody else, but in a way that adapts to individual needs. That’s why we created this mainstream book in a way that would benefit everybody, rather than something that is specifically dedicated to a relatively small audience of students with visual impairments.”

The eBook will consist of six chapters and will run about 90 pages. Every page of each chapter will begin with a question, followed by a short answer. Children with a variety of learning styles will be able to see the imagery and hear the text read to them using “read aloud” technology when they touch the audio icon at the bottom of each screen. Children with visual impairments will not only hear the text read to them but also access the book using a refreshable braille display, the “VoiceOver” screen reader, or the zoom feature that is included in every iPad.

Images, graphics, videos, and animations also will appear in every chapter. Some of the images will be interactive. Several prominent star clusters in an image of the Tarantula Nebula, for example, are marked by circles. Touch a circle and a short caption appears on the screen describing the cluster.

The first chapter answers the question, why study the stars? Other chapters will include information on the history of astronomy, the different types of telescopes, what is a star, the life cycle of stars, and the Tarantula Nebula. The last chapter will provide interviews with professionals who work in astronomy, such as scientists, engineers, graphic designers, and writers.

In addition to the VoiceOver and read aloud options, the book also will offer closed captioning, a compatibility option for people with hearing aids, and a high-contrast feature for those with low vision.

SAS also is working on some special features of its own to communicate astronomy to the visually impaired. One such feature is called “sonification,” which uses sound to convey graphical information. Readers will be asked to use headphones or external speakers to experience sonification’s full effect. The company already has incorporated the new feature in a diagram showing the brightness of stars plotted against their surface temperature or brightnesses.

For brightness, SAS is using pitch to tell people with visual impairments the brightness of a particular star when they touch it. The brighter the star, the higher the pitch. The temperature of a star will be conveyed through either the left or right ear. Cooler stars are on the left of the graph; hotter stars are on the right. Readers will hear about a cooler star through their left ear and hotter stars through their right ear.

“It’s a way to convey information that there is a trend in the distribution of stars in the diagram,” Sabbi said. “If you are trying to explore the images with your finger you can get lost. This is a much stronger way to convey the information.”

The book’s developers also will provide tactile overlays for about 10 to 12 images in the book. The overlays will have raised textures representing important features in the image. The National Braille Press is making 200 overlays that will be available for free upon request.

SAS plans to promote the book at the American Astronomical Society and other conferences next year. The company also will market “Reach for the Stars” to teachers across the country. The Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, a project partner, also will help with distribution through its network of teachers and parents.

A blind college intern, Chelsea Cook, who worked for Sabbi two summers ago, was the inspiration for the book project. Sabbi was trying to figure out how Cook could work with scientific data on the computer. Max Mutchler, a scientist at STScI who has produced tactile images for people with visual impairments, suggested that Sabbi contact Ed Summers at SAS. “Ed told me that I could apply his techniques to 30 Doradus,” Sabbi said. “With Chelsea, we put together a website trying to explore the nebula. That project led to the outreach grant for the book.

“‘Reach for the Stars’ shows the blind that there are no barriers to scare you,” she added. “And technology is improving so fast that we are sure you will be able to learn and to do things. Things are becoming more reachable.”


Donna Weaver / Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
410-338-4493 / 410-338-4514
dweaver@stsci.edu / villard@stsci.edu