Exploring the Carina Nebula By Touch

Mar 30, 2010
The raised arcs, lines, dots, and other markings in this 17-by-11-inch Hubble Space Telescope image of the Carina Nebula highlight important features in the giant gas cloud, allowing visually impaired people to feel what they cannot see and form a picture of the nebula in their minds. Located 7,500 light-years from Earth, the Carina Nebula is a 3-million-year-old gigantic cloud where thousands of stars are cycling through the stages of stellar life and death. This image shows massive stars near the end of their lives and energetic young stars that are sculpting a fantasy landscape of bubbles, valleys, mountains, and pillars. The nebula is 300 light-years wide, but Hubble captured a 50-light-year-wide view of its central region. A legend identifying the raised features is below the image. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Mutchler (STScI/AURA) and N. Grice (You Can Do Astronomy LLC)

(PhysOrg.com) -- The Hubble Space Telescope's dramatic glimpse of the Carina Nebula, a gigantic cloud of dust and gas bustling with star-making activity, is a glorious feast for the eyes. Energetic young stars are sculpting a fantasy landscape of bubbles, valleys, mountains, and pillars. Now this celestial fantasyland has been brought into view for people who cannot explore the image by sight.

Max Mutchler, a research and instrument scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Noreen Grice, president of You Can Do Astronomy LLC and author of several tactile astronomy books, have created a touchable image of the Carina Nebula that is engaging for everyone, regardless of their visual ability.

The 17-by-11-inch color image is embossed with lines, slashes, and other markings that correspond to objects in the giant cloud, allowing visually impaired people to feel what they cannot see and form a picture of the nebula in their minds. The image's design is also useful and intriguing for sighted people who have different learning styles.

"The Hubble image of the Carina Nebula is so beautiful, and it illustrates the entire life cycle of stars," says Mutchler, who, along with Grice, unveiled the tactile Carina image in January 2010, at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C. "I thought that people who are visually impaired should be able to explore it and learn from it, too."

Located 7,500 light-years from Earth, the nebula is a 3-million-year-old gigantic cloud where thousands of stars are cycling through the stages of stellar life and death. The nebula is 300 light-years wide, but Hubble captured a 50-light-year-wide view of its central region.

A Hubble education and public outreach grant allowed Mutchler to produce the special image. The grant is part of his Hubble archival research project to create complete mosaics of a huge collection of individual Carina Nebula images taken by Hubble (archive.stsci.edu/prepds/carina/). Mutchler made 300 copies of the tactile image and will distribute them to organizations that serve the visually impaired, including state schools and libraries for the blind and the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, Md.

When Mutchler decided to make a tactile Carina Nebula image last year, he immediately called his friend Grice, who is a pioneer in designing tactile astronomy images for the blind.

But Grice says the nebula image is so visually rich, it posed a challenge to design a textured image that conveys its beauty and complexity.

"When I first looked at the image, I didn't know what to focus on," she recalls. "In order to translate the image into a tactile image, I had to make certain that I understood the individual features that make up the image. There was so much to see."

She spent a couple of hours on the telephone with Mutchler, who gave her a guided tour of the nebula. Then she parsed astronomy books, looking for other views of the nebula. One feature, in particular, gave her some trouble. It was the Keyhole Nebula. Grice couldn't see how the shape in the image resembled a keyhole. Finally, she came across a 1950s image of Carina, and suddenly, she got it. The name referred to the shape of an old-fashioned "skeleton" key. Some visually impaired children who have touched the image say the feature actually resembles a foot, Grice says.

Choosing which features to show on the textured image also posed a challenge. Grice says she relied on a lesson she learned from her first NASA tactile astronomy book of Hubble images called "Touch the Universe": less is more.

"Convey just enough to get the idea," she says. "Then provide some Braille text that explains the science and describes the scene. A picture that is jammed with too many tactile details is very overwhelming for the mind's eye."

Grice used the Keyhole Nebula as the focal point and added other important features suggested by Mutchler to tell the story of stellar life and death, such as pillars of gas and dust that harbor infant stars, a cluster of young stars called Trumpler 14, and a massive, unstable star, Eta Carinae, that is near the end of its life.

The pair then developed a tactile code identifying the raised features and wrote a short guided tour that provides more information on the highlighted on the features. The guide and an audio tour of the nebula are on a special Web page called "The Tactile Carina " (http://amazing-space.stsci.edu/tactile-carina/), on Amazing Space, the Space Telescope Science Institute's education Web site.

A stable of seasoned tactile astronomy evaluators, including Vivian Hoette, the education outreach coordinator of the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., and Ben Wentworth, a retired teacher from the Colorado School for the Blind in Colorado Springs, Colo., helped test several prototypes of the image. One such evaluation place was the Youth Slam, held in the summer of 2009 in College Park, Md. The National Federation of the Blind coordinated the event to promote careers in math, engineering, and science.

One of the biggest surprises from their testing was the image size. Grice and Mutchler originally thought that a large (almost 6-foot-wide) or medium-sized (3-foot-wide) tactile image would be appropriate for students. The children who sampled the image, however, preferred the much smaller 11-by-17-inch image.

"Many students felt lost with the larger prototype versions because certain objects were separated by empty spaces," Grice says. "However, the smaller version allowed hands to easily track from one object to another."

Adds Hoette, one of the evaluators: "The smaller size gives them enough details so they can get the big picture, and then they can read the science behind it in Braille text, or they can listen to the audio tour on 'The Tactile Carina' Web page while they are touching the image."

The Grice-Mutchler partnership has worked so well that the duo hopes to produce more tactile Hubble images. "It would be great to build up a catalogue of these images for the visually impaired," Mutchler says.

Explore further: Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?

Related Stories

Hubble's Celestial Landscape

Oct 02, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- The landmark 10th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope's Hubble Heritage Project is being celebrated with a "landscape" image from the cosmos. Cutting across a nearby star-forming region ...

Spitzer Captures Fruits of Massive Stars' Labors

May 31, 2005

The saga of how a few monstrous stars spawned a diverse community of additional stars is told in a new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The striking picture reveals an eclectic mix of embryonic stars ...

The little man and the cosmic cauldron

May 27, 2008

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Very Large Telescope's First Light, ESO is releasing two stunning images of different kinds of nebulae, located towards the Carina constellation. The first one, ...

Strong winds over the keel

Feb 12, 2009

The large and beautiful image displays the full variety of this impressive skyscape, spattered with clusters of young stars, large nebulae of dust and gas, dust pillars, globules, and adorned by one of the ...

An Eagle of Cosmic Proportions

Jul 16, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Today ESO has released a new and stunning image of the sky around the Eagle Nebula, a stellar nursery where infant star clusters carve out monster columns of dust and gas.

Recommended for you

Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?

Dec 24, 2014

Bright stars top Christmas trees in Christian homes around much of the world. The faithful sing about the Star of Wonder that guided the wise men to a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was ...

Hubbles spies the beautiful galaxy IC 335

Dec 24, 2014

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the galaxy IC 335 in front of a backdrop of distant galaxies. IC 335 is part of a galaxy group containing three other galaxies, and located in the Fornax ...

Image: Multicoloured view of supernova remnant

Dec 22, 2014

Most celestial events unfold over thousands of years or more, making it impossible to follow their evolution on human timescales. Supernovas are notable exceptions, the powerful stellar explosions that make ...

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources in starburst galaxies

Dec 22, 2014

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs) are point sources in the sky that are so bright in X-rays that each emits more radiation than a million suns emit at all wavelengths. ULXs are rare. Most galaxies (including ...

When a bright light fades

Dec 22, 2014

Astronomer Charles Telesco is primarily interested in the creation of planets and stars. So, when the University of Florida's giant telescope was pointed at a star undergoing a magnificent and explosive death, ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

yyz
not rated yet Mar 30, 2010
Not too surprising she had a hard time finding the Keyhole Nebula in the mosaic. The structure and appearance of the feature has changed considerably since John Herschel first labeled the nebula back in the early 1800s. That, coupled with the 'multiwavelength' color mosaic of the region can make this feature hard to discern. A labeled zoomable version of the mosaic can be found here: http://heritage.s...tal.html
lengould100
not rated yet Apr 01, 2010
the Carina Nebula is a 3-million-year-old gigantic cloud where thousands of stars are cycling through the stages of stellar life and death.
Can any star cycle through the stages in 3 my?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.