This visualization of our solar system's neighboring stars takes you on a dizzying journey away from Earth, leaving you floating among all the other known solar systems in our local area of the Milky Way. And it is so beautiful that it might leave you a little misty-eyed.

The American Museum of Natural History created this visualization to go with a paper that museum astrophysicist Ben R. Oppenheimer and colleagues will be publishing in Astrophysical Journal. The paper is about Project 1640 at the Palomar Observatory in Pasadena, which uses a new technique to analyze the spectral signatures of distant exoplanets. Recently, the group analyzed four planets in orbit around HR 8799, a star that is 128 light years from Earth. They call their project "remote reconnaissance of a solar system."


In a release, AMNH details more of the scientists' findings:

The results are “quite strange,” Oppenheimer said. “These warm, red planets are unlike any other known object in our universe. All four planets have different spectra, and all four are peculiar. The theorists have a lot of work to do now.”

One of the most striking abnormalities is an apparent chemical imbalance. Basic chemistry predicts that ammonia and methane should naturally coexist in varying quantities unless they are in extremely cold or hot environments. Yet the spectra of the HR 8799 planets, all of which have “lukewarm” temperatures of about 1000 Kelvin (1340 degrees Fahrenheit), either have methane or ammonia, with little or no signs of their chemical partners. Other chemicals such as acetylene, previously undiscovered on any exoplanet, and carbon dioxide may be present as well.

The planets also are “redder,” meaning that they emit longer wavelengths of light, than celestial objects with similar temperatures. This could be explained by significant but patchy cloud cover on the planets, the authors say.

With 1.6 times the mass and five times the brightness, HR 8799 itself is very different from our Sun. The brightness of the star can vary by as much as 8 percent over a period of two days and produces about 1,000 times more ultraviolet light than the Sun. All of these factors could impact the spectral fingerprints of the planets, possibly inducing complex weather and sooty hazes that could be revealed by periodic changes in the spectra.


These planets would be toxic for life as we know it, so we won't be heading there to colonize any time soon. What's exciting about this new study is, as the scientists put it in their paper, "these are the first spectroscopic observations of multiple planets in a planetary system other than our own." They add that it may not be surprising to find such diverse planets in one system.

This is just the first of many spectroscopic reconnaissance missions to nearby solar systems. Over the next three years, the group will target exoplanets around nearby stars, thus ushering in a new field: "comparative exoplanetary science." There are enough planets out there now that scientists can specialize in comparing them.

Read the scientific paper from Astrophysical Journal [PDF].