The orbiting Kepler telescope is all about the numbers. How many stars have planets? How many have multiple planets? What sizes do they come in? How many of these planets are about the same size as Earth, and how many of those are in orbits that could permit life to exist? Kepler will answer all of these questions and more.
But while numbers are the bread and butter of science, they’re more like medicine for most of us and realizing that, Daniel Fabrycky decided to create some visual effects for a Kepler press release several months ago. Fabrycky, a postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was part of a team writing up a paper on Kepler 11, a six-planet system that was announced with great fanfare this past February. “Someone had figured out that three of those planets would cross in front of the star at the same time,” he says, “and I wanted to figure out where the other three were.”
So he wrote up a program that would plot the planets’ positions as though you were looking down on the system from above . To move the system forward in time, you’d press the F key. Fabrycky’s plotting routine allowed artists to create a dramatic image of the system. But when Fabrycky’s 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter sat down at his computer, they discovered something he hadn’t thought of. “If you pressed the F key over and over, quickly, it became an animation. The kids were captivated, and I thought, ‘This is interesting. Maybe I could put it on my Web page so other kids could play with it.'”