Dance of the Planets

My friend Padi Boyd is an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. She’s also a  singer, songwriter, and founding member of The Chromatics, an A Capella group who sing about, among other things, astronomy. So I was happy to hear their latest number, Dance of the Planets, got made into a nice little video. Check it out:

Dance of the Planets by The Chromatics

It’s a lovely song and a reminder of how much of our perception has  changed in such a short amount of time. Just 25 years ago, there was not a single known exoplanet – instead, we could only speculate about them and take a guess as to how what percentage of stars have planets, their number, and whether or not any of them might even have potentially habitable worlds.

Today, it’s a completely different story. We now know of more than 1800 worlds orbiting other stars, with thousands more waiting to be confirmed. We can confidently state that every star, regardless of its type, likely has at least one planet orbiting it.  The Kepler Space Telescope showed us that planets do in fact orbit other suns in their host star’s habitable zone, can have stable orbits in binary star systems, and come in a variety of sizes around stars very different than our Sun. The upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will identify even more interesting targets for future telescopes, and get us started down the path of understanding what their atmospheres are made of.

It’s an exciting time to be discovering new worlds beyond our solar system, and Padi sums it up best with these lyrics:

At the dawn of the twenty-first century,
The dream has become a reality
We’re not quite as alone as we used to be,
There are planets around the stars

Exoplanets a-bubbling

When you have one-thousand thirty eight confirmed exoplanets. you get to do some pretty cool things with all of that data. The Open Exoplanet Catalogue put together a really cool bubble chart of these planets’ sizes and temperatures.

Screenshot from interactive bubble chart of planets. Credit: Open Exoplanet Catalogue
Screenshot from interactive bubble chart of planets. Credit: Open Exoplanet Catalogue

Pretty, isn’t it? And there’s a whole lot of information packed into each bubble. The size of the bubble corresponds to the relative size of the planet and its color corresponds to its equilibrium temperature. We can think of a planet’s equilibrium temperature as an idealized case where the planet is only heated by its parent star, and there is no warming or cooling due to the planet’s atmosphere. Of course, that’s never the case in real life and that’s why the the folks at the Open Exoplanet Catalogue were careful to point out that “green might be right.”

Take a look at the visualization yourself and spend a few minutes (or hours) hovering over the planets. Visualizations like these are a great way to explore large sets of data like these all at once. And with another 1,073 (and counting) unconfirmed exoplanets, there’s going to be an ever-expanding dataset to explore.

My Kepler Exoplanet Talk at cf.Objective() 2013

Last week I was at cf.Objective() 2013 in Minneapolis, MN. cf.Objective() is an excellent software development conference, and I was there to help promote Railo, as well as talk a little bit about HTML5, I decided to do a lightning talk on the hunt for exoplanets with the Kepler Space Telescope.

Lightning talks are fun to watch and even more fun to give (if your definition of fun is figuring out how to discuss a potentially complicated topic in under 7 minutes). The rules of engagement are that talks must consist of 20 sides which automatically advance every 20 seconds. The result is a 7-minute geek fest where the speaker attempts to keep up with the slides while still trying to convey something that resembles the points he was trying to make (at least that’s how it felt for me).

Since this was a talk aimed at software developers, I couldn’t help but point out a few goodies like the awesomely awesome Exoplanet app, and the Open Exoplanet Catalogue on GitHub. And I couldn’t help but give a shout out to,, and Uwingu.

As it turned out, my talk couldn’t have been more timely with the announcement of the cessation of science operations just the day before, so I had to end my talk on a bit of a downer. However, I hope that the point of the tremendous advance in our knowledge of exoplanets thanks to Kepler was clear. No matter Kepler’s ultimate fate, the search for Earth’s twins continues.

Finally, I have to say a huge thank-you to the folks at cf.Objective() for organizing a great conference, and for having the insight to offer the opportunity to talk about something fun and interesting outside of our regular day jobs. And to my friend David Epler for capturing the video of me, and to the folks at Codebass Radio for the world-class audio recording.

Oh, and here is the lightning talk I gave at this same conference last year on the lifecycle of stars: