Visualizing the Universe with NASA Data

April 2018


Dr. Emma Marcucci (Space Telescope Science Institute)


  • Kimberly Kowal Arcand (SAO)
  • Dr. Robert Hurt (Caltech/IPAC)
  • Dr. Frank Summers (STScI)


NASA’s Great Observatories observe our universe to produce hundreds of images and collect terabytes of data each year. Translating this science data into visually engaging products is the task of science visualizers. Visualization can include images, videos, and immersive products, such as content for planetarium domes and virtual reality environments. When creating a product from real science data, the challenge is to convey scientific information in a way that is aesthetically appealing and enhances comprehension of the topic. This balance is of particular importance when working with the wavelengths of light that are not visible to our eye and for those topics in astrophysics that are more esoteric. A well-designed visualization provides scientifically accurate information that is more accessible to learners.
In this briefing, we will hear from three science visualizers from the NASA’s Universe of Learning team and NASA telescope missions about the process of making science visualization. In addition, we will share several visualization resources with you that you can use to engage the public that showcases recent NASA data and results. Our speakers work with data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, and Chandra X-ray Observatory, representing multiple wavelengths (infrared, visible, and x-ray). Dr. Summers will consider the production pipeline from data to finished presentation and highlight the considerations, processes, and tools necessary for developing science visualizations on a cinematic scale. Arcand will briefly discuss the data translation process for a single object (Cassiopeia A) from 2D image, to time series, to 3D/Virtual Reality applications. She will then provide an overview on her research into how such data visualizations are received by experts and nonexperts. Dr. Hurt will examine the process of “translating” color from across the electromagnetic spectrum of light into the visible palette accessible by humans, with consideration to balancing aesthetics with scientific meaning.



Dr. Emma Marcucci is an Education and Outreach Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. She received her Ph.D. in planetary geology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2013. As a Postdoctoral Fellow, she worked with satellite stereo images to derive topographic models of locations that lack good elevation information, such as locations in Alaska and on Mars and Mercury. Dr. Marcucci is now part of the Office of Public Outreach at STScI, sharing the science of Hubble and Webb with the general public and astrophysics content as a member of the Universe of Learning, an Astrophysics-based STEM learning and literacy program funded through NASA SMD.

Kimberly Kowal Arcand is the Visualization Lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which has its headquarters at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a leading expert in studying the perception and comprehension of high-energy data visualization across the novice-expert spectrum. As a science data “story teller” she combines her background in molecular biology and computer science with her current work in the fields of astronomy and physics.  She is a principle researcher in the Aesthetics and Astronomy image response research project with international participation. Arcand presented a TEDx talk on "How to hold a dead star in your hand." She has co-written four popular science books including "Coloring the Universe: An Insider's Guide to Making Spectacular Images of Space."

Dr. Robert Hurt is the Visualization Scientist for NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope Science Center at Caltech. He earned his Ph.D. from UCLA in astrophysics in 1993 for a study of gas dynamics in starburst galaxies; other areas of interest include star formation and active galaxies. After a period of postdoctoral and staff science work at Caltech/IPAC, in 2002 he shifted focus to science communications through data visualizations, technical diagrams, artist's concepts, animations, and podcasts. He has created the visual public identity of a number of NASA missions including Spitzer, WISE, GALEX, Kepler, and NuSTAR. He is closely involved with the astronomy visualization community and has led efforts to develop metadata standards and best practices in the field.

Dr. Frank Summers is an “astrovizicist” at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD. For the last 17 years, he has contributed to all aspects of the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescope press, education, and outreach through news media, web sites, educational programs, social media, museums and planetariums. His specialty is creating accurate and aesthetic scientific visualizations by combining research data and computer simulations with Hollywood rendering techniques. His credits include writer, science advisor, and scientific visualization supervisor on IMAX “Hubble 3D” (2010), and science and script advisor on IMAX “A Beautiful Planet” (2016). He contributed data, science, and visuals to the Academy Award-nominated IMAX "Cosmic Voyage" (1996), and directed the IMAX short “Hubble: Galaxies Across Space and Time” (LFCA Best Short Film 2004). When not attempting to re-imagine the universe, he is likely to be found at the disc golf course.