3D Printing Technology: A Unique Way of Making Hubble Space Telescope Images Accessible to Non-Visual Learners

By Noreen Grice, Carol Christian, Antonella Nota, and Perry Greenfield

Preferred Citation

Grice, N., Christian, C., Nota, A., & Greenfield, P. (2015). 3D Printing Technology: A Unique Way of Making Hubble Space Telescope Images Accessible to Non-Visual Learners. Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, 5(1). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/jbir/jbir15/jbir050101.html. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5241/5-66


Astronomy traditionally is a visual science by which sighted people have contemplated the night sky. Astronomy has also spurred the development of sophisticated telescopes and instruments, featuring capabilities that extend to wavelengths beyond the visible, to record images of celestial objects. While the scientific data from telescopes is somewhat specialized and technical, astronomers routinely process their data to produce visually appealing formats for the public at large and also widely contribute to education and outreach efforts. Astronomical data is treated through image processing techniques including color and intensity choices that result in imagery that best represents the science being investigated in its greatest aesthetic appeal.

Making such astronomical imagery accessible to those who are visually impaired has been a long-standing challenge. Yet, it is recognized that such individuals should have an opportunity to explore, discover, learn about, and contribute to astronomy and science in general. Considerable work has been done by educators, scientists, and artists to make science in general and astronomy in particular more accessible through the use of various technologies, including low resolution tactile images on thermoform and swell-touch pages based on the visual materials. Recently, 3D printers have emerged as a new tool for making reproductions of objects so that they can be useable and understood by a broader community of learners, including the visually impaired.

This article outlines an innovative study that is aimed at taking images of astronomical objects and translating them into a 3D tactile representation of the object’s structure and composition for engagement and discovery by a range of users and learning styles. Using the star cluster NGC 602 as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope as the initial test case, we investigated processes for creating appropriate digital file structures, tested tactile approaches, and utilized focus groups to determine usability of the products.


Tactile design, 3D printer, tactile graphic, swell-touch paper, swell-form machine, Hubble Space Telescope, science, astronomy

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5241/5-66

The Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research is copyright (c) 2015 to the National Federation of the Blind.