Kimberly Arcand is the Star Whisperer

The Rhody resident is the visualization lead for the NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
Photograph: Stephanie Alvarez Ewens

Kimberly Arcand has a supernova in her purse. She unzips her bag, rifles through it and pulls out a small, gray object that looks a bit like a tiny piece of coral, with porous edges and grooves pockmarking its surface.

This is a 3D printed model of a massive celestial entity that, in its previous life, was a star ten to twenty times bigger than our sun. The unfortunate star ran out of hydrogen and helium, fused its core into a blob of iron, then started collapsing onto itself, heating up its iron core and compressing it until it shrank into a neutron core with a radius of around six miles. The core heated up to billions of degrees and exploded, creating a supernova — an exploding star. The outer layers of the star were sent hurtling through space, leaving behind a field of debris called a supernova remnant. The sequence of events produced the object that now sits as a scaled down, 3D printed replica in the palm of Arcand’s hand.

Arcand, who lives in Rhode Island, is the visualization lead for the NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so it makes sense that she has a 3D model of an exploding star in her purse. 

Like an artist who blends colors and decides where a dab of white will create the illusion of light, Arcand pores over data sets that give her the breakdown of a star, what’s happening to it, what it’s made of and then uses the information to map out what it looks like. While she loves what she does, it wasn’t always her dream. 

“When I was a kid, I was interested in stars and had a little stellarium [a three-dimensional map of the stars] with these little plastic things with holes in them, and you would shine the light in the dark up to the bedroom ceiling and understand and see all the constellations. I wanted to be an astronaut even though that would never work for me. I can’t even go on a simple amusement park ride, so no,” she says with a laugh. 

So instead of being amongst the stars, Arcand paints a detailed picture of them for the people on Earth. 

“If you look at this star’s image, when it’s color coded, you can trace where the iron is, where the silicon is, etcetera,” Arcand says, turning the tiny version of a giant star over. “This also tells us the story of our origins, because that same material came to us in a previous generation of exploded stars, whether it’s the iron in our blood or the calcium in our bones.” 

We really are all star children, and Arcand is using data imaging to make that idea all the more tangible. 

She’s co-authored a book called Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe, an illustrated four-color resource on the grand scale of the universe. Arcand is also working on a project that takes the exploding star out of her hand and immerses people in the star using virtual reality.