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NCSA visualizations featured in Hubble 3D

High-resolution 3D visualizations of galaxies, nebulae and newborn stars created at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications take viewers on an unprecedented voyage of discovery into the wonders of the universe in Hubble 3D, a 43-minute IMAX® 3D documentary narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film offers an inspiring and unique look into the Hubble Space Telescope’s legacy and highlights its profound impact on the way we view the universe and ourselves.

An IMAX and Warner Bros. Pictures production, in cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Hubble 3D enables viewers to travel through distant galaxies and accompany space-walking astronauts as they attempt some of the most difficult and important tasks in NASA’s history. The IMAX 3D camera, which flew onboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, captured compelling moments from the five space walks performed by the STS-125 crew last spring, while NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory (AVL) crafted two data-driven 3D flights through the cosmos in collaboration with scientists from Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and Princeton University.

“We’re passionate about bringing science, technology and art together in order to share the thrill of scientific discovery with the widest possible audience, so this project has been very exciting for us,” said AVL leader Donna Cox.

The sequences created by AVL are extraordinarily luminous and richly detailed because of their extremely high-resolution—5,616 x 4,096 pixels per frame, compared to 1,920 x 1,080 pixels for a top-notch high-definition plasma TV. The animations produced by AVL include more than 600 billion pixels!

“NCSA’s visualization team brought exceptional talent and expertise to this project,” said producer/director Toni Myers. “With software and skill and an artistic eye, they brought the science of the Hubble telescope to life.”

The team at NCSA—including Donna Cox, Robert Patterson, Stuart Levy, Alex Betts, Matthew Hall, and AJ Christensen—worked for six months on their contributions to Hubble 3D, using their VirtualDirector software and a state-of-the-art 4k resolution digital 3D display to view the work in progress and interactively choreograph shots with Myers and STScI astrophysicist Frank Summers.

One sequence animated by the AVL team takes viewers on a flight from the Milky Way galaxy, past our nearest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, and into the Virgo Cluster, a group of more than 1,000 galaxies in the constellation Virgo. The voyage ends with a view of Messier 87, also called Virgo A, a giant, radio-loud elliptical galaxy located about 55 million light years from home that is famous for the black hole-powered jet of matter streaming from its center. The scientific data for the landmarks on this faster-than-the-speed of light voyage were provided by the STScI research team led by Summers.

The final image in this section of the film is a view of the star-studded cosmic web, the tenuous filaments that make up the skeleton of the universe; the data for this visualization were produced by Princeton researchers Jeremiah Ostriker and Paul Bode.

The second sequence produced by NCSA’s visualization team is a flight from Earth to Orion the Hunter, one of the sky’s most recognized constellations. Viewers begin with a look at the night sky, then fly toward the three stars of Orion’s belt. The belt breaks apart, revealing that its three stars actually sit on three distinct planes and exposing our sense that these stars exist side by side as an optical illusion. The journey reaches its climax as viewers pierce the veil of the Orion Nebula and enter its nursery of stars, where proto-planetary disks encompass newly formed stars.

Summers’ team at STScI created the 3D Orion model, which was enhanced, choreographed, and rendered by NCSA’s AVL.

“Given the deep backgrounds of Hubble science at STScI and computational processing at NCSA, plus the visualization expertise of both groups, this collaboration literally became a match made in the heavens,” Summers said.

For more information about Hubble 3D, visit

NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory combines art, science, and technology to create sophisticated data-driven animations for broad public enjoyment and education in IMAX theaters, planetariums and museums, and television documentaries. AVL is also an applied research partner for the University of Illinois’ eDream (the Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media Institute), which is dedicated to promoting arts that are conceived, created, and conveyed through digital technologies. For more information on AVL and eDream, go to and

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