NASA – when it’s not busy recreating snowflakes in 3D and taking rather spectacular photographs of the poles – is quite keen on a bit of science communication. Its latest foray comes in the form of the Exoplanet Travel Bureau, an interactive exploration simulator that takes you to a variety of exoplanets.
It’s very cool, and we’d recommend diving in immediately to play around with it. It’s amazing to be able to get a 360° view of these worlds, and although they may have the graphical resolution of a slightly outdated video game, it’s easy to forget that these aren’t works of fiction, but representations of real worlds, out there, waiting to be explored.
When it comes to what these planets look like, though, there’s a fair bit of well-reasoned, artistic license at play. NASA acknowledge this upfront; we just haven’t gathered enough data yet to paint a fuller picture of these celestial objects in many cases.
In fact, much about the nearly 3,200 known planets beyond our own Solar System remains a bit enigmatic, down to the fact that we often can’t observe them directly, nor in high resolution. As explained over at the NASA Exoplanet Archive, we mostly detect these worlds indirectly.
Sometimes they move or “transit” in front of their host star, and we can see their silhouette. If the light passes through the atmosphere, the subsequent spectrographic analysis of the incoming light tells us what the gaseous envelope, if any, is comprised of.
Proxima b (a likely rocky world in the star system nearest our own) and the TRAPPIST star system (a bit further out, but also potentially habitable) were detected because they were pulling on their host stars, which caused them to wobble ever so slightly. Through this wobble, a surprising amount of physical parameters can be ascertained about these worlds, but the atmosphere is a different kettle of fish.
Some planets are massive enough to distort the light emerging from their host stars. This warping of the fabric of spacetime means that, sometimes, the light rays are focused and the entire endeavor becomes a cosmic magnifying glass. This distortion can also be picked up by exoplanet hunters.
Just a handful have been directly detected, but that’s rare. It’s like looking for a speck of dust attached to a massive spotlight.
All in all, though, it means we can make estimates and best guesses of what these planets may be like, especially when we compare them to ones we know plenty more about – but several key details remain unclear.
That doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying the Exoplanet Travel Bureau, though, because it is nothing less than awesome. You can even fiddle with the planets’ parameters, including switching the atmosphere on and off, to see what it’s like either way.