NASA’s Kepler exoplanet-hunting mission has revolutionized how we view the stars in our galaxy. There are billions of exoplanets out there and it appears there’s a preponderance of small, rocky worlds. The discovery of an exoplanet that exhibits similar characteristics as Earth (i.e., a world of similar size, density and orbit around a sun-like star) is probably only months away.
Although this is one of the ultimate goals of Kepler, the space telescope is ratcheting up an impressive database of exoplanetary candidates. To Alex Parker, a postdoctoral researcher in planetary science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, this data haul provides an excellent opportunity to create some awesome visualizations.
Shown above is the visual representation of the majority of exoplanet candidates identified by Kepler so far. I say “majority” as Parker hasn’t included candidates that are circumbinary planets or planet candidates where only a single transit has been observed.
So all the exoplanets have been scaled to orbit the same star. For example, for the purposes of this animation, if there are two exoplanets of equal size but one is orbiting a larger star, that one has been shrunk to maintain the scale of this system of orbiting worlds.
As the animation zooms out — with the atmospheric Nine Inch Nails’ “2 Ghosts 1″ playing — Parker shows the three orbital locations of Mercury, Venus and Earth. What is most striking is that the vast majority of Kepler’s exoplanetary candidates have very compact orbits within the orbit Mercury orbits our sun. This isn’t surprising as Kepler hunts for exoplanets by detecting the slight dimming of their host star as the world passes in front. The more compact the orbit, the more times the exoplanet will pass in front of (or transit) the star’s disk. As time goes on, more exoplanets with wider orbits will inevitably be found.
Video credit: Alex Parker, Vimeo