Stunning photographs of the cosmos, like the wondrous images captured by the Hubble Space telescope, convey the beauty that arises from the simple interactions of dust and light and gas on absolutely massive scales. Missing from photos of the universe, however, is a sense of depth: These stunning nebula are not a paint splatter on a celestial canvas, but truly massive constructions hanging in the void.
Working from his own photographs of far-off nebulae, astrophotographer J-P Metsävainio came up with a way to artificially add in the third dimension. From there, he’s produced gorgeous animations of voluminous nebulae. (The files are quite big, so you might have to give it a second.)
The images, says Phil Plait, on his blog Bad Astronomy, are “not actually showing you the 3D structure of the nebula. It’s an approximation, a guess based on various assumptions on how nebulae are shaped. J-P broke the image up into layers, made a surface model of it, then remapped it all into different frames seen from different angles. He then put those together to make the animated GIF you see here.”
First, Metsavainio collects information about how far away an object is, and carefully studies the stars and structures in and around it. Then, he creates a volumetric model of his subject — usually a nebula, although he’s rendered at least one globular star cluster. Finally, he animates the 3-D rendering, providing viewers with a tantalizing taste of what it might be like to fly a starship through these enormous astronomical ornaments.
“How accurate the final model is, depends how much I have known and guessed right,” Metsavainio said. Many of his renderings carry the statement: “NOTE: This is a personal vision about shapes and volumes, based on some scientific data and an artistic impression.”
Along with the stunning animated images, Metsävainio has a whole range of photos and animations in his portfolio, including more attempts at rendering the celestial features in three dimensions.
More recently, Metsävainio told Smart News, he has been publishing his animations as videos on YouTube, rather than animated gifs, since videos tend to be easier to share than the slow-loading gifs.
More from Smithsonian.com: