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Printing the Moon

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to attend a conference (in a loose sense) that was a million miles away from my normal academic meetings – South by Southwest (SxSW). This is a huge multifacted event, with over 100,000 attendees covering interactive. film, music, education and every other form of tech meets new media that you can think of.

I was there because I know a man who knows a woman who happens to work at NASA. My brilliant colleague Jon Rogers, a product designer in our Art School, works on a range of projects exploring how to make data ‘physical’. NASA, who have a desire to make their open data more used by interested parties have been developing a ‘Space Apps‘ challenge to try and focus people, in a crowdsourced manner, around certain topic areas. As one might imagine these challenges and their solutions are fairly software based, but NASA also wanted something a bit more hardware oreintated – hence ‘Making Space Apps Physical’. Jon wanted to try and broaded this idea out and so asked a couple of other designers, Sandra Wilson and Jayne Wallace and myself to get involved, adding to the team that already included Ali Llewellyn from NASA. This led to us submitting a panel proposal for SxSW this year, which was (surprisingly) accepted, based around this idea of making space a bit more immediate, a bit easier to interact with.

And so the “Print the Moon” project was born – my little contribution. The idea arose from an Advanced Higher (final year Scottish high school pupil) who wanted to try and do an experiment on Astronomy. We lent her a telescope and then suggested that she could try and do some measurement on craters on the moon looking at their shadows. Even with a decent telescope like ours this is not so easy, so I thought about how you might be able to do the same thing in the lab. With the ability to 3D print objects it seemed like it should be possible to print out a crater and then just use a torch or other light source to do the experiment, and this was the challenge I sent to a group of our keen undergraduates.

Essentially the problem was to find the right data and then take that and turn it into something readable by the 3D printer (or rapid prototyper). The data was provided by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisence Orbiter with it’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument providing 3D surface topography. The students then ported this into Matlab to plot the surface, sent it over to Meshlab for cleaning up and then sent it to Solidworks to output it to the printer. As an educational tool this has proved very valuable, as the students had never really used any of these before (expect Matlab). A copy of the Korolev Crater is shown below, from the dark side of the moon. You can then do a bit of trigonometry to try and get the crater dimensions based on shadow data. So all in all it works quite well.

3D version of Korolev on the dark side of the Moon.

3D version of Korolev on the dark side of the Moon. Spot the deliberate mistake.

And we took this over to South by Southwest and talked about it on the panel, and I even got to meet an astronaut. I’m very proud of my students getting stuck into something like this – a project that has no academic bearing on their courses – done just as it’s a bit of fun and it helps you to learn some new skills. I also think we could maybe push this towards a publication in something like the American Journal of Physics and will hopefully have some Nuffield Bursary students working on this over the summer to try and gather the necessary data.

Our students were also on hand at an event organised by New Media Scotland, the LateLab, as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival to talk about their work. And there is still more to come, with other events still to make use of out little chunk of the moon. Oh, and if you want to get involved, there is a Space Apps Challenge: “Dark Side of the Moon“.

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