What happens when a planetary scientist has a love for order? He creates code that sorts everything from our solar system’s moons to exoplanets into graceful spirals where every object is slightly smaller than the one before. Astronomical knolling is my new favourite way to contemplate the vast scale of space.
Planetary scientist Alex Parker has shown up around here before for his gorgeous visualizations of astronomical phenomena. His most recent code sorts objects by their radii, creating sweeping spirals of alien worlds. Once he got started, the only question was where to stop:
Technically knolling refers to organizing related objects in perpendicular and parallel formats so it doesn’t apply to these graceful curves, but what better term can be used to describe pulling astronomical objects out of context and rearranging them in a visually pleasing manner? Until we come up with a better term, I’m hooked: Let’s organize every object in space into size-diminishing spirals of loveliness!
It can be hard to visualize the over one thousand alien worlds discovered by Kepler and the other planet-hunting telescopes. We don’t know how large all of them are, but this is every single planet we have found and know the radius of, with our own specks of home in bright yellow for context:
Relative sizes of all planets with a known radius. Image credit: Alex Parker
Parker is also responsible for the prettiest visualization we’ve seen of Kepler’s exoplanet horde.
While close-in planets and asteroids get most of our attention, our solar system is still downright busy out past the orbit of Neptune. This is every known transneptunian object to scale, starting with the dwarf planets Pluto and Eris and spiralling out to their wee cousins.
Relative sizes of known transneptunian objects. Image credit: Alex Parker
Despite staring at the night sky for millennia, we only spotted Pluto in 1930, and it took another six decades before we confirmed its first cousin in extreme orbits, the transneptunian object (15760) 1992 QB1. After that, we got busy with systematic sky surveys to tease out other occupants of the Kuiper Belt, Oort cloud, scattered disc, and everyone else who orbits beyond the reaches of chilly Neptune.
We’ve seen size-comparison charts for transneptunian objects before, but this one is both prettier and updated with the latest confirmed discoveries. Parker is the same scientist who previously created a visualization of the dates of discovery for transneptunian objects. For even more context, he also pulled together a spiral of every planet, moon, and transneptunian object in our solar system the size of Mars or smaller:
The smallest planets, moons, and transneptunian objects in our solar system. Image credit: Alex Parker