While we're all excited about the possibilities of 3D printing cars and organs, NASA has another use in mind — physical representations of galactic phenomena. Its first such creation is that of the Homunculus Nebula, a massive, fast-expanding formation centred on Eta Carinae star system.
Using the ESO's Very Large Telescope and "X-Shooter" spectrograph, NASA captured just over 90 "slices" of the nebula, according to a statement from the organisation. This provided a wealth of data, including information on the formation's size, speed and composition, which put together allowed for the creation of a high-res virtual version.
If you're expecting some staggeringly beautiful three-dimensional curiosity you can stick above the fireplace, you're going to be disappointed. Turns out the Homunculus Nebula looks like a pair of joined molars. As far as NASA is concerned, however, it's given researchers a great deal of insight into the properties of the nebula, which rests 7500 light-years from Earth.
Upon closer inspection, the model reveals visible "dents" either side of the nebula, as well as the fact that it's not symmetrical — a fact once assumed due to a lack of data — wing-like projections are noticeable on each side, near the centre. This means that the binary relationship of Eta Carinae's stars had an impact on the nebula's shape.
Perhaps the best part is that NASA is releasing the model free, so anyone can print out the nebula for use (?) at home:
"Now anyone with access to a 3-D printer can produce their own version of this incredible object," said Goddard astrophysicist Theodore Gull, who is also a co-author of the paper. "While 3-D-printed models will make a terrific visualization tool for anyone interested in astronomy, I see them as particularly valuable for the blind, who now will be able to compare embossed astronomical images with a scientifically accurate representation of the real thing."
And keep in mind this is just the start — I'm sure NASA will deliver even more complex and interesting models in the future.