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New projects aim to teach the vision impaired about the beauty of space

The Space Telescope Science Institute has unveiled its projects to help the vision impaired understand space, including a free iPad ebook exploring the Tarantula Nebula.

A new image of the Tarantula Nebula showing over 800,000 stars and protostars.
(Credit: NASA, ESA and E. Sabbi (STScI))

The Space Telescope Science Institute has unveiled its projects to help the vision impaired understand space, including a free iPad ebook exploring the Tarantula Nebula.

There's a lot more to the wide universe than its looks, but there's no denying that the beauty and grandeur of the cosmos plays a strong role in our continuing fascination with it. Astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) would like to make that majesty accessible to the vision impaired, and are gearing up to release ways of doing so.

Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn is an ebook to be released on iPad, exploring stellar evolution by focusing on the 30 Doradus Nebula, also known as the Tarantula Nebula. The work of Elena Sabbi, lead researcher on the newest Hubble image of the nebula, along with Ed Summers and Ada Lopez, the book will be free and can be read and enjoyed by everyone.

"We hope it will be an inspiration and attract people to science," Sabbi said. "That's the main goal. We want to convince children that science is cool, is fun, and that anybody could be a scientist, if they want to."

"I feel strongly that people with disabilities don't want separate materials," Summers added. "We want to be able to access the same materials as everybody else, but in a way that adapts to individual needs. That's why we created this mainstream book in a way that would benefit everybody, rather than something that is specifically dedicated to a relatively small audience of students with visual impairments."

The book, targeted at children in the 10-12 age group, will run for about 90 pages across six chapters, and includes features that make it more accessible to the vision impaired. These include a "read aloud" function, as well as support for Apple's VoiceOver software, a refreshable Braille display and zoom.

In addition, it will offer closed captioning, hearing aid compatibility and a high-contrast feature so that readers with low vision can see the images and animations more clearly.

A company called SAS, which specialises in software that helps people visualise data, is also working on including sonification, or the use of non-verbal audio to convey information, in the book. For example, in an image displaying a field of stars, pitch is used to communicate brightness, and the temperature of a star is conveyed by feeding audio to the left or right ear: cooler stars to the left and hotter stars to the right.

Finally, 3D tactical overlays will be provided for around 10 or 12 images in the book, available from the National Braille Press in the US on request. These will have raised textures that represent features in the image. We imagine these will be similar to another STScI project: 3D-printed maps of Hubble images, created by astronomers Carol Christian and Antonella Nota. The prototypes unveiled by the pair last week allowed vision-impaired and blind people to feel stars, filaments, gas and dust using textures such as circles, lines, dots and elevation.

"Reach for the Stars shows the blind that there are no barriers to scare you," Sabbi said. "And technology is improving so fast that we are sure you will be able to learn and to do things. Things are becoming more reachable."