Think galactically, print locally

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Remember that groovy Saturn wallpaper they used to sell for kids' bedrooms? The Hubble Space Telescope folks are making available a very chic, grown-up, and open source, version of that same idea. In this case, it's a black and white image of the Carina nebula, stitched together from 48 separate images taken using the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys. It shows a region of space 50 light years across.

At, I found myself intrigued by the menu item advertising wall murals. "This," I thought, clicking on it, "is how they make their money." Since NASA makes just about all of their images available in the public domain, I should have known better.

What I found astonishing was not the hefty resolution—NASA offers a lot of images at ultra-high-resolution, after all. (They have a link to a colour image of the Carina nebula weighing in at 29566 X 14321, for instance. Given that images at this resolution can crash both browsers and computers, download only, as they emphasize, at your own risk. It's almost always adequate to use the lower resolution versions).

What was intriguing were the DIY instructions that describe how to assemble one of these multi-frame wall murals, using eight large downloadable images that you can take to any photolab for black and white printing.


The key to this model of distribution is the accompanying letter that certifies that these images are in the public domain. Photolabs are not permitted to print copyrighted images, so in order to make a large-format set of images available in this way, it is necessary to provide the shop with documentation proving that they won't get into trouble if they agree to print the photos.

This model of distribution is both free and open source, of course. But it is also a distribution model which is here right now, and which points to the promise of localized production, in this case, to the possibility of local, on-demand printing. There are few facilities that offer local, on-demand printing of books. Photolabs, however, and print shops, have become a ubiquitous feature of many urban centres.

The content might be generated quite remotely (7500 light years away, in this case). The physical artifact can be cheerfully printed at a photo store near you.

Front and Inside Images: Space Telescope Science Institute