This Mesmerizing Animation Depicts the Orbits of More Than 1700 Planets


NASA's Kepler satellite was launched in 2009 as a part of a mission to survey the stars in our galaxy to find planets that could potentially support life. As of November 24, Kepler had observed 1705 planets across 685 systems. Using information about the equilibrium temperatures of the planets and the orbits of the systems, University of Chicago assistant professor Daniel Fabrycky created three color-coded and time-synchronized animated maps that are very cool to watch.

Now astronomer and University of Washington Ph.D. student Ethan Kruse has created a fourth version, recently posted to YouTube. The video is a digital form of an orrery, which is a mechanical model of the solar system that dates back to ancient Greece. The description explains that the planets in this latest installment are not shown to scale, but the orbits are. The animation uses a color scale based on temperature with blue (250 Kelvin) on the low end, white (750 Kelvin) in the middle, and red (1250 Kelvin) used to represent the hotter planets. The swirling colors and soft music make digesting the large amount of visual information more fun and interesting.

According to a recent study, however, Kruse may have to make a few adjustments to his cool orrery. An international team of researchers shared the results of a five-year study this week that suggests not all of the Kepler planets are what they seem. In fact, many of them many not be planets at all. Using the SOPHIE spectograph at the Observatory of Haute-Provence in France, the team found that 52.3 percent of Kepler's biggest exoplanets are actually eclipsing binary stars, and another 2.3 percent are brown dwarfs—strange objects that aren't quite stars or planets [PDF]. 

"In this work, we showed that even big, easy-to-detect planets are also difficult to deal with," study co-author Vardan Adibekyan said in a statement about the findings, which were presented at the recent Extreme Solar Systems III conference in Hawaii. "In particular, it was shown that less than half of the detected big transiting planet candidates are actually there. The rest are false positives, due to different kind of astrophysical sources of light or noise."

Planets or no, Kruse's visuals are cool, and we can't stop watching them.