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Waltzing exoplanets

Kepler exoplanet candidates from blprnt on Vimeo.

By Hamish Johnston

This visualization of exoplanet candidates is currently all the rage on the physics blogs. Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars other than the Sun, and those illustrated above are 1236 candidates that have been identified by NASA’s Kepler mission, which launched in 2009.

Further observations are required to confirm that all of these are actually exoplanets, but that hasn’t stopped Jer Thorp from creating a beautiful way of visualizing the Kepler data. Thorp is a Canadian artist and educator who describes himself as “a former geneticist, [whose] digital art practice explores the many-folded boundaries between science and art”.

To illustrate the relative size, temperature and orbit of the candidates, Thorp has all the exoplanets orbiting a single star – something they don’t really do.

Earth an Mercury are also included, making it crystal clear that astronomers have thus far only managed to discover planets larger than Earth. All of the candidates save one are in orbits tighter than Earth’s. The bias towards large planets in tight orbits probably doesn’t reflect all exoplanets in the universe, but occurs because such “hot Jupiters” are easier to spot using existing telescopes than are Earth-like planets.

Unfortunately there is little commentary to go along with the visualization, but it looks like Thorp explores several different ways of displaying the planets according to their size, orbit, orbital period and temperature. Not surprisingly, red is used to identify the hottest planets and blue is the relatively cool temperature of the Earth.

One thing Thorp does say is, “Two candidates are highlighted: KOI 326.01 and KOI 314.02. Out of all the candidates, those two may have the best chances of satisfying some of the ‘habitability’ criteria astronomers tend to use.”

While orbitals are a natural way to illustrate exoplanets, the concept can also be used to visualize other data – including the agricultural economics. Above is the “World Bank Orbital Comparison” of agriculture in the nations of the world. This work was done by James Grant, who is a digital art and design student in Tempe, Arizona.

Both visualizations were made using Processing, which is an open-source programming language.

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