Astronomers create the first 3D-printed stellar nurseries


CATEGORY: New advances

Researchers can now hold stellar nurseries in their hands thanks to 3D printing, revealing features often obscured in traditional renderings and animations

Astronomers can’t touch the stars they study, but astrophysicist Nia Imara is using 3-dimensional models that fit in the palm of her hand to unravel the structural complexities of stellar nurseries, the vast clouds of gas and dust where star formation occurs.


Imara and her collaborators created the models using data from simulations of star-forming clouds and a sophisticated 3D printing process in which the fine-scale densities and gradients of the turbulent clouds are embedded in a transparent resin. The resulting models—the first 3D-printed stellar nurseries—are highly polished spheres about the size of a baseball (8 centimeters in diameter), in which the star-forming material appears as swirling clumps and filaments.


“We wanted an interactive object to help us visualize those structures where stars form so we can better understand the physical processes,” said Imara, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and first author of a paper describing this novel approach published August 25 in Astrophysical Journal Letters.


The results are visually stunning and scientifically enlightening. "Just aesthetically they are really amazing to look at, and then you start to notice the complex structures that are incredibly difficult to see with the usual techniques for visualizing these simulations," says co-author John Forbes of the Flatiro Institute's Center for Computational Astrophysics. "For example, sheet or pancake-shaped structures are difficult to distinguish into slices or two-dimensional projections, because a section through a sheet looks like a filament."


The nine simulations on which the models are based were designed to investigate the effects of three fundamental physical processes that govern the evolution of molecular clouds: turbulence, gravity, and magnetic fields. By changing different variables, such as the strength of the magnetic fields or how fast the gas is moving, the simulations show how different physical environments affect the morphology of substructures related to star formation.


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