How our models are made

For all of our models we start with astronomical data take from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.  These data are transformed from their original file format (.fits) into something a bit more user friendly (.png).  During this conversion process we also apply a “stretch” to the data so the faintest features (e.g. spiral arms) and the brightest features (e.g. the center) of the galaxy are easily visible at the same time.

A black-and-white images of the whirlpool galaxy (M51). In the center of the image is a spiral galaxy with two tightly wound spiral arms. The arm on the left side extends to a companion galaxy that it is merging with.
SDSS g-band (blue light) of the whirlpool galaxy (M51).

This results in a black-and-white image of the galaxy representing all the light of a particular color coming from the galaxy.  To make our 3D model this image is used as a height map with white being the most raised point and black being the least raised point.  A border with a height equal to the highest point on the model is added around the outside to act as a point of reference when feeling the models.  This process has been automated with a custom plugin available we have made available on github.

A screenshot of the blender user interface. In the center of the image is a 3D model of the whirlpool galaxy (M51).
One of our models in the blender user interface.

After the model is crated it is exported as an .stl file and prepared for 3D printing.  This process will be explored in more depth in our next post.

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