This image depicts a vast canyon of dust and gas in the Orion Nebula from a 3-D computer model based on observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and created by science visualization specialists at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md. A 3-D visualization of this model takes viewers on an amazing four-minute voyage through the 15-light-year-wide canyon. Credit: NASA, G. Bacon, L. Frattare, Z. Levay, and F. Summers (STScI/AURA)
Experience Hubble's Universe in 3-D
› Larger image
Take an exhilarating ride through the Orion Nebula, a vast star-making
factory 1,500 light-years away. Swoop through Orion's giant canyon of
gas and dust. Fly past behemoth stars whose brilliant light
illuminates and energizes the entire cloudy region. Zoom by dusty
tadpole-shaped objects that are fledgling solar systems.
This virtual space journey isn't the latest video game but one of
several groundbreaking astronomy visualizations created by specialists
at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, the science
operations center for NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The cinematic
space odysseys are part of the new Imax film "Hubble 3D," which opens
today at select Imax theaters worldwide.
The 43-minute movie chronicles the 20-year life of Hubble and includes
highlights from the May 2009 servicing mission to the Earth-orbiting
observatory, with footage taken by the astronauts.
The giant-screen film showcases some of Hubble's breathtaking iconic
pictures, such as the Eagle Nebula's "Pillars of Creation," as well as
stunning views taken by the newly installed Wide Field Camera 3.
While Hubble pictures of celestial objects are awe-inspiring, they are
flat 2-D photographs. For this film, those 2-D images have been
converted into 3-D environments, giving the audience the impression
they are space travelers taking a tour of Hubble's most popular
"A large-format movie is a truly immersive experience," says Frank
Summers, an STScI astronomer and science visualization specialist
who led the team that developed the movie visualizations. The team
labored for nine months, working on four visualization sequences that
comprise about 12 minutes of the movie.
"Seeing these Hubble images in 3-D, you feel like you are flying
through space and not just looking at picture postcards," Summers
continued. "The spacescapes are all based on Hubble images and data,
though some artistic license is necessary to produce the full depth of
field needed for 3-D."
The most ambitious sequence is a four-minute voyage through the Orion
Nebula's gas-and-dust canyon, about 15 light-years across.
During the ride, viewers will see bright and dark, gaseous clouds;
thousands of stars, including a grouping of bright, hefty stars called
the Trapezium; and embryonic planetary systems. The tour ends with a
detailed look at a young circumstellar disk, which is much like the
structure from which our solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.
Based on a Hubble image of Orion released in 2006, the visualization
was a collaborative effort between science visualization specialists
at STScI, including Greg Bacon, who sculpted the Orion Nebula
digital model, with input from STScI astronomer Massimo Roberto; the
National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and the Spitzer Science Center at the
California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
For some of the sequences, STScI imaging specialists developed new
techniques for transforming the 2-D Hubble images into 3-D. STScI image
processing specialists Lisa Frattare and Zolt Levay, for example,
created methods of splitting a giant gaseous pillar in the Carina
Nebula into multiple layers to produce a 3-D effect, giving the
structure depth. The Carina Nebula is a nursery for baby stars.
Frattare painstakingly removed the thousands of stars in the image so
that Levay could separate the gaseous layers on the isolated Carina
pillar. Frattare then replaced the stars into both foreground and
background layers to complete the 3-D model. For added effect, the
same separation was done for both visible and infrared Hubble images,
allowing the film to cross-fade between wavelength views in 3-D.
In another sequence viewers fly into a field of 170,000 stars in the
giant star cluster Omega Centauri. STScI astronomer Jay Anderson
used his stellar database to create a synthetic star field in 3-D that
matches recent razor-sharp Hubble photos.
The film's final four-minute sequence takes viewers on a voyage from
our Milky Way Galaxy past many of Hubble's best galaxy shots and deep
into space. Some 15,000 galaxies from Hubble's deepest surveys stretch
billions of light-years across the universe in a 3-D sequence created
by STScI astronomers and visualizers. The view dissolves into a
cobweb that traces the universe's large-scale structure, the backbone
from which galaxies were born.
In addition to creating visualizations, STScI's education
group also provided guidance on the "Hubble 3D" Educator Guide, which
includes standards-based lesson plans and activities about Hubble and
its mission. Students will use the guide before or after seeing the
"The guide will enhance the movie experience for students and extend
the movie into classrooms," says Bonnie Eisenhamer, STScI's
Hubble Formal Education manager.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) and is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Md. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts
Hubble science operations. The institute is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., Washington, D.C.