NASA’s Kepler mission is doing what we may one day call NASA’s most important project. It’s searching for habitable planets—second Earths—that our grandchildren’s grandchildren may call home, or that could contain life as we know it. So far, NASA’s spotted about 2,300 of these exoplanets, including 48 that appear to be in a sweet spot distance away from the sun.
So what do they look like? Two gurus—data artist Jer Thorp and John Underkoffler, the designer who created the interfaces in Minority Report—have produced a UI that lets you find out, using the pinch and zoom brilliance of Underkoffler’s most famous work.
The project began when Thorp discovered NASA’s first paper. "It was really fascinating, but I couldn’t make much sense of the charts and graphs that were in it, so I made the first visualization to answer some questions for myself: What do 1,300 planets look like? How do these planets compare to Earth and the other planets in our solar system?" Thorp tells Co.Design. "The answers, of course, were in the paper, but I didn’t have the expertise or familiarity with the visual language to find them."
His first visualization was built in a weekend. The idea was simple: Take all of these planets from disparate parts of space and render them to orbit around a single star. Since NASA could estimate their size, temperature, and distance from the sun, this was all Thorp needed to build a giant, functional solar system of all the known exoplanets.
Then NASA released a second Kepler paper, just about doubling the exoplanets on their list, and Thorp realized it was time to up the ante with this visualization.
"Since I started the project, I always had this idea that it would be amazing to explore the system in 3-D, with some kind of interface that wasn’t just a mouse and a keyboard. This kind of really-futuristic dataset of distant planets that at some time become new outposts for humanity, seemed to really want a futuristic treatment," Thorp writes. "So, I called up John Underkoffler, who was the science and technology advisor on Minority Report. John pretty much lives in the future, and he immediately had some ideas of how we could turn this 2-D thing into something much more immersive."
Thorp called the experience "a dream come true," as the two spent a week at Oblong developing "Exo"—the demo you see here, which only becomes more impressive the longer you watch it. Not only can you use gestures to highlight individual planets and rotate your view of this Kepler solar system, you can seamlessly transition from 3-D view to chart views—toggling between planets in 3-D and graphs sorting them by their size or heat. You can even check out individual solar systems within Kepler’s database—systems which have a few of the approximately 2,300 exoplanets orbiting the same star.
"I’ve always felt extremely limited by the interface paradigms that we’re bound to, and getting the chance to build something out for a fully spatial, gestural system was fascinating," writes Thorpe. "It opened up a lot of doors for me in thinking about how data visualization could act as interface inside a system that wasn’t necessarily limited by a single screen or a single plane of motion."
Especially on the universe’s scale, when we’re talking about planets, stars, and galaxies that are billions of light years apart—and when we’re actually collecting this data rather than speculating about its existence—styrofoam dioramas and 3-D fly-bys of yore just won’t do. We need to not just scale, but to distill space as we know it into something that we can conceptualize and explore. And I can think of nothing more effective for the space program than having some of the most brilliant minds in visualizing the future bridge the gap between NASA scientists’ metal models and the general public’s need to see and touch.
"The most exciting thing for me about Exo is that it might get people interested in this amazing science that weren’t interested before. The Kepler team is doing this really amazing work that could very well have huge implications on the future of humanity, and yet they aren’t getting a lot of funding, or attention," writes Thorp. "If my work can help spread the word in any way about what they’re doing, I’d be happy."
As of now, Thorp’s Kepler source code is open source. Exo itself will be available on desktops and tablets soon. We’ll keep you posted.