Right, sit down because we have several important pieces of information to tell you about planets and planet observations and photography, and we're probably going to burst many bubbles.
It appears that well over 200,000 people thought that the image tweeted below is an actual photograph of a planet. In a post that was widely shared over the last few days, Twitter user Jessi wrote "look at this planet that NASA found... she's gorgeous...".
I hope you all enjoyed the indeed gorgeous pictures because now it is time to ruin them (for a surprising number of you out there, anyway). First up, a fact check: a lot of people claimed that the planet was discovered by a 17-year-old in 2019.
This is not the planet that was found by teenager Wolf Cukier on his third day of a NASA internship in 2019. That planet is depicted in the image below.
Second, and most importantly, these images of exoplanets are very much not photographs. Many, including the person who posted the images, believed that the artist impressions released by NASA and other exoplanet-locating folk were direct photographs of an exoplanet.
A good rule of thumb is that if it looks like it wouldn't be out of place in Star Wars it's either one of the planets in our own Solar System (see the many, many gorgeous pictures taken of Jupiter by Juno or Saturn by Hubble) or an artist's impression of an exoplanet. Exoplanets by definition are extrasolar planets outside our Solar System.
Hunting for exoplanets is not an easy task. Astronomers typically use several different techniques to gain indirect evidence of their existence. When a candidate is spotted, researchers then resort to a different method to confirm its existence. Astronomers have only confirmed the existence of an exoplanet with a direct image once, and it definitely didn't look pink and pearly.
Artists are employed by NASA and other space agencies and research institutes to create the glorious depictions seen whenever an exciting new planet is discovered. It's not just random, of course, they create their visualizations using real data from the discoveries to be as realistic as possible.
“For the public, the value of this is not just giving them a picture of something somebody made up. These are real, educated guesses of how something might look to human beings. An image is worth a thousand words,” explained Douglas Hudgins, a program scientist for the Exoplanet Exploration Program at NASA, in a feature on the art of exoplanets.
Based on data is not to say that they are perfect. “When we’re doing these artist’s concepts, we’re never saying, ‘This is what these planets actually look like,’” Tim Pyle, who also works on exoplanet visualizations following a career in Hollywood special effects, added. “We’re doing plausible illustrations of what they could look like, based on what we know so far."
The viral photos of the pink planet above, however, were created by a bot.
Luckily, the creator of the bot did pipe up to point out the real heritage of the pretty planet, which was gratefully accepted and shared by the original poster.
The creator of the Among Stars bot said on Tumblr that they were inspired by the images captured by the Saturn-studying Cassini, and started the algorithm to create these images and automatically post them to social media, where they were mistaken by the Internet for direct images of actual planets.
If you're slightly disappointed, let us blow your mind with these incredible real pictures of the wonders of our Solar System.