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Kepler Exoplanet Candidates
by Jer Thorp

I stumbled upon this great little visualization of the exoplanets discovered by the Kepler probe, as current as February of this year. It shows us all the planets we’ve found so far, plotted relative against our own solar system; keeping planet sizes in scale with one another, and the sizes of orbits in scale as well.* It’s a clever way to bring the scope of everything we’ve found so far into focus. As always, letting people ‘see’ information exceeds other methods by an order of magnitude.

There’s two things I love about this video. One, it’s yet another example of the power of infographics. With no more than some judicious visual storytelling and a few coloured dots, the animator conveys not only a wealth of data, but also creates a tangible mind-picture inside his viewer. After seeing this I finally feel like I have a sense of these worlds and their orbits, a much better sense than I would have if I was required to imagine them myself.

The second thing I like is that it’s nice to see some visuals produced about the whole exoplanet thing that aren’t just artist’s renderings of what these worlds might look like. We’ve all seen them, (above and below) and they’re certainly pretty. Of course, the first reaction to hearing of some alien world is to wonder what things might look like from it’s surface, but that’s the sort of information that we may never know. While it’s fine to use artist’s impressions as a tool to get people interested in astronomy, as a follower of science I feel like I’ve seen enough of them at this point. I don’t need to be inspired to want to learn more about these worlds; I’m already inspired! Now teach me the facts!

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The final point I’d like to make is something I’m sure many readers already understand, but I think is an important point to clear up for those who haven’t been following the Kepler saga closely. (and you really should be) You’ll notice from this video that most of the planets orbit their stars at an incredibly close distance, generally within the orbits of the terrestrial planets** in this neck of the galaxy. That’s probably not a reflection of how other solar systems are typically arranged, but merely an artifact of our methods of searching for them. The techniques used are more sensitive to both larger planets, and planets closer to their stars; so the largest stars in the smallest orbits are the ones most likely to be found.

It will take some refining of these techniques before we begin finding more earth-like worlds, but we’re well on our way. This is nothing if not a fascinating time in the field of astronomy, even to those of us who are no more than fans. Kepler, and the missions that will follow it, may finally give us a destination on which to focus efforts for mankind’s first interstellar flight.

In the meantime however, we’re left only with the data, some pretty cool graphics, and our imaginations.

*You couldn’t have both the planet’s sizes and their orbit sizes in scale with one another on a tiny computer screen, or you wouldn’t be able to see the planets.
**Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars
NOTE: Much better viewed in HD, fullscreen – for detail purposes

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/19642643 w=500&h=283]

More info on the animation:

Jer Thorp is an artist and educator from Vancouver, Canada. His digital art practice explores the many-folded boundaries between science and art.
This is a visualization of the 1236 exoplanet candidates observed by Kepler. 

As you can see, the vast majority of these planets orbit their stars at a distance less than Earth. This is likely due to the relatively short observation period – it is highly probable that many more planets will be found as the duration of study increases.

Two candidates are highlighed: 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.
A lot of help in making this video came from Lee Billings – who provided key astronomical advice and included the visualizations in his guest blogger posts at BoingBoing.

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