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Beautiful Interactive Visualization of Exoplanets

By Norman Chan

Interactive galaxy map created in collaboration with Minority Report's UI designer.

For some of you, the name Kepler may bring to mind Nvidia's post-Fermi graphics core (which is in the news today with the launch of of the GTX 670 video card), but it owes its namesake to 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler. Kepler, a contemporary of Galileo, was the first to accurately describe how planets orbit around stars in his laws of planetary motion. Also adopting the Kepler name is NASA's ongoing mission to discover habitable planets far outside of our solar system. Since 2009, the Kepler mission, through its space observatory, has identified over 2300 exoplanet candidates, around 50 of which astronomers believe lie within the habitable zone of their sun. The potential exoplanets are wide-ranging in size and planetary composition, which makes visualizing them difficult for the average space enthusiast. Scientists themselves don't actually "see" the planets--their existence is inferred from spectroscopy data.

New York based data artist Jer Thorp took it upon himself to create a colorful visualization of Kepler's discoveries, which was shared last year in this BoingBoing post. Like any good data visualization, it highlighted curiosities that would be difficult to perceive with just numbers and data. For example, the largest candidate discovered at the time is a planet several times larger than Jupiter, but sits much farther out from its sun than the other larger exoplanets. Part of this is observational bias--the trends shown by the visualization are not only indicative of what kind of planets exist outside of our solar system, but also what detection techniques we're using to find them. As different technologies and strategies for identifying exoplanets emerge over time, the range of what kind of planets we find will shift as well.

More recently, Thorp updated his visualization model to include the exoplanet candidates found since last year. But not only did he create a new animation, he worked with John Underkoffler at Oblong Industries to add gestural control to his visualization--the interactive project is simply called "Exo". If Underkoffler and Oblong sound familiar, that's because he's the UI designer who worked with Steven Spielberg on the UI interface in Minority Report. We wrote about his TED talk and G-Speak technology demo in 2010. Says Thorp of the collaboration:

I’ve always felt extremely limited by the interface paradigms that we’re bound to, and getting the chance to build something out for a fully spatial, gestural system was fascinating. It opened up a lot of doors for me in thinking about how data visualization could act as interface inside a system that wasn’t necessarily limited by a single screen or a single plane of motion.

The most exciting thing for me about Exo is that it might get people interested in this amazing science that weren’t interested before. The Kepler team is doing this really amazing work that could very well have huge implications on the future of humanity, and yet they aren’t getting a lot of funding, or attention.

Thorp has opened up the source code of Exo to developers on github and plans to eventually release it as an interactive app for tablets.