I'm enchanted by Alex Parker's visualization of the planets discovered by the first phase of the Kepler Space Telescope's exoplanet-hunting mission. The simple swarm of time-vs-distance for exoplanetary orbits captures the overwhelming number of alien worlds with a minimalistic, elegant aesthetic.
The horizontal axis is time — the planet's period. It caps out at 1000 days, so a handful of planets fall outside the figure range if it takes longer than that for a complete orbit around its star. The vertical axis is distance. Combined, the time-vs-distance is the orbital path around the home star as a sine wave tracing each orbit, with a different line for each planet.
The visualization does have some caveats — this includes a bunch of planet-candidates that haven't been confirmed yet, although it doesn't have any of the candidates that have been confirmed as false-positives that are most certainly not-planets.
The Kepler Space Tescope has been responsible for discovering literally hundreds of exoplanets, which have been visualized as zooming flybys, piled around one star, an interactive blob, or graphed out in discoveries-over-time. While Alex Parker grumbles that he never did finish the figure the way he wanted to, I think this one may be my very favourite for the sheer simplicity. Although his black-and-white version with a cut-off of 100-day periods (excluding approximately 7% of planets and candidates) is a strong contender for competition...
We've found simply mind-boggling numbers of exoplanets — each of those past visualizations is from the time before we knew about this planet, or that one, or this whole pile of multi-planetary systems over there. We've crossed into such overwhelming numbers of planets that I like basking in their multitude, with the details fading into a pattern of wonder instead of trying to marvel at each individual planet with its own unique quirks. Parker has captured their variety from the massive horde of planets huddled to their suns to those brave wanderers on more exotic orbits while eliminating the endless details that distract from the mass of far-off worlds. It's simple, elegant, mathematic art: the beauty of orbital mechanics embedded in the wonder of alien worlds.
The Kepler Space Telescope suffered a series of mechanical failures last year, knocking out its ability to stay stable and threatening to end its incredibly productive life. This temporarily ended its planet-hunting mission, cutting down the number of proposed discoveries even as new processing techniques started moving candidate planets to confirmed planets en masse.
However, after a bunch of very clever engineers unintentionally had a lot of free time on their hands during the shutdown last fall, they came up with a plan to balance the remaining functioning stabilizers against pressure from the solar wind, using solar powers as an improvisational reaction wheel. The revived K2 mission is ramping up to start hunting for yet more exoplanets around alien suns, so soon this visualization will also be outdated, with more worlds piling their pinpricks of data into our growing knowledge about how very crowded it is in the universe.
Image credit: Alex Parker