Kimberly Arcand is one of the world’s preeminent experts in astronomy visualization and has been a pioneer in 3D printing and virtual reality applications in this field. Kim began her career in molecular biology and public health before moving to NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in 1998. In addition to being an award-winning producer and director, she is an expert in studying the perception and comprehension of high-energy data visualization across the novice-expert spectrum. Kim has co-written five popular science books, and has her first two children’s books coming out this year.
Kimberly, could you let us know about your background and your journey to Additive Manufacturing?
My background is eclectic: a strange mixture of microbiology, computer science, image and meaning research, and astronomy. I’ve been working for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory for over twenty years. As the visualization and emerging tech lead for Chandra, I like to say that I use NASA data to tell stories, and that those stories can take the form of a 2D image, a 3D model, a VR application, or some other output.
I learned how to create with additive manufacturing from pure curiosity. In 2009, we had an incredible digital 3D model of an exploded star, Cassiopeia A, at hand. Not long after, I heard that my colleagues at the Smithsonian had created and printed a 3D model of President Obama’s head. I thought if they could do that, surely we could figure out how to print this 3D model of a supernova remnant. With a bit of help from the Smithsonian experts on how to translate a 3D file into an .stl file, my team and I experimented our way through the process and started 3D printing exploded stars. Of course, our prints are scaled way down from the real thing. For example, the 4-inch version of Cassiopeia A we made represents something about 40 million billion times the surface area of our Sun and planets combined.
To date, what would you say is your greatest achievement in Additive Manufacturing?
From that first-ever 3D print of an exploded star, crafted from observational data, I’ve only wanted to continue to learn and do more in this area. I had an emotional reaction to holding this object, Cassiopeia A, in my hands, and I wanted to share that with others who usually don’t get access to these kinds of data. We began to explore what other objects could we model into 3D and then print out? How would people respond to the prints? What would they learn from them, and enjoy (or not enjoy) about them? What kind of access might this format of data give to people who can’t rely on the sense of sight or who have other types of abilities?
The project grew on its own from there, and we went on to create a full 3D printed tactile and Braille kit of five astronomical objects (stars and exploded stars) that use NASA data. We started working with students at the National Federation of the Blind to improve our 3D prints. Then we started printing, distributing and further refining the kits, which we nicknamed “Touch the Stars.” It has been such a rewarding project, I would have to say that’s my favorite achievement so far.
What are some of the challenges of 3D printing a supernova remnant?
3D modeling deep space objects based on purely NASA observational data is challenging. We are stationed here on Earth, rather far away from the objects that we want to learn about. Cassiopeia A (Cas A), for example, is about 11,000 light years away (each light year is the equivalent to about 10 trillion km). Certainly, we can’t fly out to Cas A and circle around it with high tech cameras like we can for objects here on Earth. Instead, scientists have to use a lot of math, physics and technical know-how using information that can be parsed from the different kinds of light each object gives off. From there, it’s like a puzzle to put the object back together in a 3D environment.
The process of just getting the data into 3D is difficult, and there are even more challenges when it comes to the 3D printing. For example, some data aren’t connected to the main structure, so they have to be removed, or else it would just fall off after printing. The Cas A model itself is physically complex so it’s often hard to print and takes a long time. The remnant of the dead star, for example, has multiple thin jets protruding from each side that can be particularly fragile. And before we were using a 3D printer with a dissolvable substrate, the removal of the support structures and clean-up of such a complex model was very time consuming.
What data has NASA available for this work?
Our collection of celestial objects modelled in 3D is growing slowly as technical information improves, new equipment goes online, and new methods from extracting this information are developed. We have new objects of other exploded stars, clusters of stars, stellar nurseries and middle-aged stars like our Sun, just to name some. Researchers are also exploring other data sets of areas around black holes, interacting galaxies, and more to see if they can be mapped in 3D. And for objects that are nearby, say, in our Solar System, it’s usually easier to measure. NASA maintains a whole database of 3D printable objects from planets and moons to spacecraft and astronaut suits. It’s freely available at https://nasa3d.arc.nasa.gov
Do you have any (fun or not) story about your career to share with us?
I carry a tiny 3D print of Cas A in my purse. I have it with me all the time, and have found so many opportunities to take that model out when I’m talking to someone about what I do. It’s such an easy way to make the things that seem so intanglible, tangible. Sometimes, though, I travel with a larger set of 3D printed objects, if I’m going to present at a special event for example. I can’t tell you how many times airport security has asked me about those models. It always leads to an interesting (if not a bit brief), conversation about our Universe. My goal is to 3D print Cas A in silver so I can wear it on a necklace ☺
Have you run into any challenges from being a woman 3D Printing?
Being a woman in the broader technology field for a couple decades has had its challenges. I remember going to tech conferences when I was just starting out at my job and how uncomfortable I felt at some of them. I was young and was often the only woman in the room, and I just felt like I stuck out. Male attendees would sometimes make comments on what I was wearing or how I looked. Sometimes these comments were kindly meant (or I assume they were), but it made me feel like I belonged even less. Luckily I would return back home and go to work and be surrounded by women who were doing awesome jobs. Having that supportive environment at work was crucial for me at that point. My own group has grown over the years since those early days, and I have been very happy to be able to hire some of the most talented people I know, many of whom are women. Having such a diverse group of people around you is a sure fire way to bring a lot to the table – strong creativity, innovation, a healthy group dynamic.
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you?
One of the things that makes the 3D printing industry so interesting for me is the possible applications for future space exploration. There are plans, for example, for potentially 3D printing lunar base modules using lunar dust. It seems so brilliantly simple, as you can’t easily pack up all the materials you need for building things on the Moon or Mars all the way from Earth. If you can sustainably use resources at the site (like on the Moon or Mars) itself, then I think the potential for success goes way up. Those are the types of things I like to think about for the future of additive manufacturing – seeing how far we can literally take this technology including into space itself.
What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
To date, the 3D printing of prosthetics and other assistive devices is what I find so incredible. Also, going back to my biology roots, 3D bioprinting techniques to build blood vessels in living skin? These are just incredible feats of technology.
Where do you think the industry will move to in the next 10 years?
More sustainability hopefully, particularly for the communities currently using PLA.
What advice do you have for women looking to get started in 3D Printing?
Be curious, do some research, and jump in! Finding a colleague or mentor to ping ideas off of is usually helpful, joining a group like this one, subscribing to some industry newsletters, and going to a conference if you have the funding are all useful things to do when you’re starting out.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with Additive Manufacturing?
I think it really helps to communicate the stories about women currently doing this work, like you are here with your program. As Sally Ride noted, you can’t be what you can’t see. Reaching out to schools with some of these stories might also be helpful.
Favorite 3D tool? Hard to pick…..Maybe Blender.
Favorite moment in your day job? Anytime I get to talk to kids about what I do – their reactions and questions energize me.
What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years? Cheaper 3-color 3D printing so we can preserve some of the scientific information of astronomical models.
Another inspiring woman you’d like us to interview? April Jubett on my team is responsible for most of the .stl model conversion now, and also oversees the 3D printing now. She is inspiring!