Kepler Explorer app puts distant planets at your fingertips

Apr 03, 2012 By Tim Stephens
Kepler Explorer challenges users to design a planet that matches the Kepler data.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Armchair explorers of the cosmos can now have at their fingertips the nearly 2,000 distant planetary systems discovered by NASA's Kepler Mission. Kepler Explorer, an innovative app for iPads and iPhones developed by a team at the University of California, Santa Cruz, provides interactive displays of newly discovered planetary systems based on Kepler data.

Now available for free from the App Store, Kepler Explorer was developed through the OpenLab initiative at UC Santa Cruz, which brought together faculty and students in astrophysics, art, and technology for a summer institute last year. The Kepler Explorer team includes astrophysicist Jonathan Fortney, a member of the Kepler science team; two of his graduate students, Eric Lopez and Caroline Morley; artist Kyle McKinley, a recent graduate of the Digital Arts and New Media program; and John Peters, a recent graduate of the computer game design program.

"I learned a lot about astrophysics from this project. It was a lot of fun," said Peters, who wrote all of the software code for the app.

Fortney, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC, said he enjoyed the opportunity to work on a project that could reach a wider audience than most of his research. The team quickly settled on the idea to create an app, and also developed it into an exhibit that provides additional information and shows the app's output on a large screen. The exhibit was part of two OpenLab public exhibitions last year, one at the UCSC Digital Arts Research Center and another at the Tech Museum in San Jose. It is scheduled for long-term installation in the Lick Observatory visitors gallery later this month.

Kepler Explorer starts with drop-down menus listing all the Kepler-discovered , plus our own solar system. The selected system is displayed in a view that shows the planet or planets in their orbits around the host star. Shown in real time the planets look motionless, but moving a slider increases the speed until the planets zip around their star. The touch screen lets users zoom in and move around the system, and tapping on an individual planet brings it up for further exploration. Another view shows the relative sizes of the individual planets compared to their host star.

Kepler Explorer's most innovative features are seen when viewing individual planets. The user can manipulate the composition of the planet and its atmosphere and see which mixtures of components (iron, rock, water, and hydrogen) are consistent with Kepler's observations. This feature represents graphically the type of in-depth analysis that Fortney does for the Kepler Mission. "I have pretty good intuition for what the likely composition of a planet is based on its size, but the app allows anyone to explore the properties of many different planets very quickly," he said.

Because Kepler detects as they pass in front of their host star, it only measures the radius of a planet, or how big it is. In most cases, the mass of the planet is unknown. When the mass is unconstrained, there may be different combinations of components that result in a planet of a given size. The app's interactive graphics show how this works. There are sliders for different components and how they are partitioned in the core and the atmosphere, and as you move the sliders the image of the planet grows and shrinks, based on hundreds of calculations. As you change the settings, the app tells you when the size of your planet matches the observations. The calculations involved took hours of computer time, but the results are stored in tables so the app can use them on the fly.

"For a large-radius planet, you can very quickly tell that it can't be a rocky planet, for example, and that in itself is pretty informative," Lopez said.

So far, the has detected a total of 2,321 planet candidates orbiting 1,790 host stars. Automatic updates for the Kepler Explorer app will add new planet candidates as they are discovered.

Explore further: SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

Provided by University of California, Santa Cruz

4 /5 (6 votes)

Related Stories

Kepler announces 11 planetary systems hosting 26 planets

Jan 26, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's Kepler mission has discovered 11 new planetary systems hosting 26 confirmed planets. These discoveries nearly double the number of verified Kepler planets and triple the number of stars ...

Kepler mission announces next data release to public archive

Aug 15, 2011

The Kepler science team announced on Aug. 12 the next release of data to the public archive. Quarter three science data collected during the months of September to December 2009 will be available for download on Sept. 23, ...

Two more kepler planets confirmed

Aug 08, 2011

Hot on the heels of confirming one Kepler planet, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope announces the confirmation of another planet. Another observatory, the Nordic Optical Telescope, confirms its first Kepler planet ...

Recommended for you

SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

17 hours ago

The sun emitted a mid-level flare on Dec. 18, 2014, at 4:58 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts ...

Why is Venus so horrible?

Dec 19, 2014

Venus sucks. Seriously, it's the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you ...

Image: Christmas wrapping the Sentinel-3A antenna

Dec 19, 2014

The moment a team of technicians, gowned like hospital surgeons, wraps the Sentinel-3A radar altimeter in multilayer insulation to protect it from the temperature extremes found in Earth orbit.

Video: Flying over Becquerel

Dec 19, 2014

This latest release from the camera on ESA's Mars Express is a simulated flight over the Becquerel crater, showing large-scale deposits of sedimentary material.

Spinning up a dust devil on Mars

Dec 19, 2014

Spinning up a dust devil in the thin air of Mars requires a stronger updraft than is needed to create a similar vortex on Earth, according to research at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

zercomnexus
5 / 5 (2) Apr 03, 2012
They think real techies use iphones? Well just so you iphone users know apple collects gps data on all users even if you turn gps "off." Andriod ftw
rwinners
not rated yet Apr 04, 2012
Just one question: why is this not available on desktop and laptop pcs?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.