Mapping the 50 closest exoplanetary systems to earth
This pet project began after a casual conversation with Anze Slosar of the Brookhaven National Laboratory. As someone with an interest in both data-viz, and cosmology, I was curious about which raw data-sets would be interesting to the general public, and would actually benefit from visualization. Anze recommended The Exoplanet Data Explorer which catalogues exoplanets, as they are discovered. This information is arguably fascinating to your average person because it shows which planets live in the “habitable zone” ie. the right distance from a star to facilitate life.
Upon delving into the data, it became clear that a single visualization could not comprehensively cover every single exoplanet discovered. Given that people were interested in exoplanets because of their potential to harbor life, it made sense to focus on the 50 exoplanetary systems closest to Earth. There were numerous data points available in the catalogue, so with Anze’s guidance, I selected a few which would give people a basic picture of each exoplanetary system, for example the size of the orbit and whether or not a planet lives in the “ habitable zone”. Less crucial information, like spectral classes and orbital period/exoplanetary mass, is displayed on the edges of the graphic.
Data parsing, design
Understanding the data
The weeks spent familiarising myself with the data involved intermittent check-ins with Anze where we would narrow down those data points which were most relevant to the general public’s understanding of exoplanetary systems.
Experimenting with scale
In iteration, we ran up against an interesting problem: space is so vast that it was impossible to use a linear scale to represent the exoplanetary systems. As an alternative, we turned to logarithmic scales. This way, we could represent each system in a way that was visible to the eye, and still allow people to understand which systems were smaller/bigger than others, and which systems contained planets in the ‘habitable zone’.