Other earths are out there. It’s just a matter of looking for them hard enough. That’s the job of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which is nearing the end of its funding lifespan. Is it mere coincidence that Scientific American and Farrar, Straus & Giroux have just released “Journey to the Exoplanets,” an immersive iPad app dedicated to getting you excited about extrasolar exploration?
“Journey to the Exoplanets” is the first release from a new imprint launched by Scientific American and Farrar Straus & Giroux, and it’s clear that they plan to do some ambitious things with tablets and e-books. The app boasts SciAm’s bulletproof, up-to-date explanations of the hunt for planets outside our solar system — as well as gorgeous visualizations of what these alien worlds might actually look like, courtesy of Hugo Award–winning illustrator Ron Miller.
The visuals and interaction design, by UK firm Brandwidth, tread a fine line between cheesily on-the-nose (the app’s main screen, which depicts the bridge of a spacecraft, feels more like clip art than Cosmos) and genuinely imaginative. The app’s best features are the ones that skip the seemingly endless blocks of dense text and static illustrations in favor of sprightly interactive visualizations, like the panoramic views of exoplanets’ surfaces (as imagined by Miller) that pan and tilt in synch as you turn the iPad, like a magic window into another world.
Another simple but ingenious feature displays a 3D map of our stellar neighborhood, showing the positions of star systems with known planets relative to our own in a rotating visualization that feels appealingly retro, like something out of the original Star Wars. But the best part may be the “Planet Builder” feature, which displays an exoplanet alongside a set of sliders that let you change attributes like the planet’s size, distance from its native star, and the magnitude of that star. As you tweak the stellar settings, the image of the exoplanet adjusts on the fly to reflect their effects — an effect that adds considerable drama to the real-world imagery that NASA actually generates. Let’s face it, it’s sometimes hard to get excited about yet another fuzzy, indistinct blob in a black frame. The Kepler telescope, and NASA’s other ambitious exploratory efforts, need all the help they can get these days in winning hearts and minds (and dollars) — and “Journey to the Exoplanets” is a worthy step in the right direction.