Stellar nurseries are made up of molecular clouds of dust and gas where star formation occurs. Astronomers need to study how stars are born to understand the mechanisms behind the universe. Now, an astronomer and artist used 3D printing to allow scientists to hold stellar nurses in their hands.

According to, astronomy assistant professor, Nia Imara from UC Santa Cruz created the resin globes using data acquired from these star-forming regions to reveal features in unparalleled detail that are often unseen in the usual renderings and animations of stellar nurseries.

 3D Printing Allows Astronomers to Hold Stellar Nurseries in Their Hands to Observe the Stars
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
This shot from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows a maelstrom of glowing gas and dark dust within one of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). This stormy scene shows a stellar nursery known as N159, an HII region over 150 light-years across. N159 contains many hot young stars.

3D-Printed Stellar Nurseries

Imara, an astrophysicist and artist, and her collaborators used a sophisticated 3D printing process to create the resin globes that show fine-scale densities and gradients of turbulent clouds of dust and clouds as described in simulations of star-forming regions.

These 3D-printed stellar nurseries are highly polished spheres that are 8 centimeters in diameter. Imara said that this interactive object would help astronomers visualize structures where star formation occurs to better understand their physical processes.

Imara told UC Santa Cruz News Center that she got an idea from a sketch she made a few years back wherein she was holding a star. As someone who specializes in star formation within molecular clouds, it somehow occurred to her that she could build a 3D model of stellar nurseries using data from simulations of these star-forming regions.

Imara said that the 3D-printed stellar nurseries are an example of science imitating art. They were both visually striking and scientifically illuminating that astronomers begin to notice complex structures that are often obscured when using the usual techniques for visualizing simulations of stellar nurseries.

For instance, the spheres helped them to better see structures that are hard to distinguish in 2D slices or projections. Also, they reveal features that are more continuous than they would appear when presented in 2D projections.

"If you have something winding around through space, you might not realize that two regions are connected by the same structure, so having an interactive object you can rotate in your hand allows us to detect these continuities more easily," Imara said in the news release.

She described the 3D-printed stellar nurseries in her study, titled "Touching the Stars: Using High-Resolution 3D Printing to Visualize Stellar Nurseries," published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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Star Formation in Stellar Regions

Orion Nebula is a famous region in the universe where stars were born. According to NASA, turbulence deep within these clouds of dust and gas gives rise to knots with enough mass for it to collapse on its gravitational pull. As these clouds collapse, the protostar within them begins to heat up to become a star someday.

Scientists have used 3D computer models before to predict that spinning clouds of dust and gas could break up into two to three blobs, which explains why many stars in the Milky Way are paired or in groups.

But not all of the pieces of the gathering dust and clouds become a star. Some become part of asteroids, planets, and comets, or sometimes they remain as dust clouds.

 RELATED ARTICLE: Where Stars Are Born: NASA's SOFIA Telescope Captures High-Resolution View of a Star Nursery in the Milky Way

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