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The Beauty of Space Comes to the Visually Impaired

3 minute read

It can’t be easy to hear again and again about all of the breathtaking pictures the Hubble Space Telescope has been taking over the years, when all you can do is hear about them. For the visually impaired, the cosmic artwork captured by the greatest telescope in human history is all hearsay—or at best something that can be seen only poorly, with nothing like the clarity and richness that is available to the fully sighted.

That’s about to change, thanks to Elena Sabbi, a lead researcher with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and SAS, a software analytics company in Cary, NC. Sabbi and SAS are releasing a six-chapter, 90-pg. eBook called Reach for the Stars, designed to provide a dazzling tutorial on the science of stars and astronomy in general, using Hubble images that are enhanced and presented in ways that makes the material accessible to the fully and partially sighted as well as to the blind.

The text will be presented in both visual and audio form and the pictures will be expandable as they are on any tablet—none of which is terribly new. But the information will also be enhanced with “sonification.” Partly sighted readers can touch an image of a star and its degree of brightness will be indicated by a tone—a higher pitch means a brighter star, lower means dimmer. The temperature of a star will be indicated by the earbud in which the tone appears: left for cooler, right for hotter. The left and right configuration will also be used for the visual placement of the stars on the screen. Early versions of the book will include 10 to 12 screen overlays with Braille lettering and other raised features representing various characteristics of the stars; Sabbi and SAS are also working with The National Braille Press, which is producing 200 additional overlays.

The image above is the first one Reach for the Stars readers will encounter, and all by itself, it justifies the effort being put into the book. It’s a picture of the Tarantula Nebula, a 600 light year wide region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, 170,000 light years from Earth, where 800,000 young stars are being born. Consider a place as improbable as that. Now imagine being able to experience it only through words. For a lot of people, that’s a limitation that will soon be no more.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com