On NASA’s new Exoplanet Exploration website, you can explore an imagined surface of an alien world via 360-degree, interactive visualizations. As you investigate each planet’s surface, you’ll discover fascinating features, like the blood-red sky of TRAPPIST-1d, or stand on a hypothetical moon of the massive planet Kepler-16b, which appears larger than either of the planet’s two suns. The view from each planet’s surface is an artist’s impression based on the limited data that is available; no real photos of these planets exist.
Kepler-16b (image above) was the Kepler telescope’s first discovery of a planet in a “circumbinary” orbit– circling two stars, as opposed to one star in a double-star system. Like Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine, Kepler-16b would have two sunsets if you could stand on its surface. This planet, however, is likely cold, about the size of Saturn and gaseous, though partly composed of rock. It lies outside its two stars’ “habitable zone,” where liquid water could exist. And its stars are cooler than our sun, probably rendering the planet lifeless. Of course, we could look on the bright side (so to speak).
When the discovery was announced in 2011, Bill Borucki, the now-retired NASA principal investigator for Kepler at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, said finding the new planet might actually broaden the prospects for life in our galaxy. About half of all stars belong to binary systems, so the fact that planets form around these, as well as around single stars, can only increase the odds.
We live in a universe teeming with exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system. Unfortunately, even the nearest exoplanets are light-years away, so sending spacecraft and humans to these intriguing worlds remains a distant dream.The newest planet to feature this 360-degree surface visualization is Kepler-186f, an Earth-size planet orbiting a star much cooler and redder than the Sun. Scientists don’t know if Kepler-186f has an atmosphere, but with the NASA visualization tool, you can see how the presence or absence of an atmosphere would change the view of the sky from the planet’s surface.
“Because Kepler-186f and the majority of Kepler-discovered planets are so distant, it is currently impossible to detect their atmospheres — if they exist at all — or characterize their atmospheric properties,” said Martin Still, program scientist for NASA’s newest space-based planet-hunting observatory, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
“Consequently, we have limited knowledge about what these distant worlds are really like, but these surface visualizations allow us to imagine some of the possibilities,” Still said. “Current and future NASA missions, including TESS and the James Webb Space Telescope, will find the nearest exoplanets to our solar system and characterize their atmospheres, bridging the gap between speculation and what’s really out there.”
All the 360-degree visualizations are viewable on desktop and mobile devices, or in virtual reality headsets that work with smartphones. You can also peruse travelposters of such distant worlds as Kepler 186f; TRAPPIST-1e, or PSO J318.5-22, where the “nightlife never ends” because the planet doesn’t orbit a star, but is instead floating freely through space.
Many exoplanets share characteristics with the planets that orbit our Sun — some are gaseous like Saturn and Jupiter, while others are rocky like Earth and Mars. But these alien worlds also have unique features that set them apart. NASA is helping scientists discover and learn about these alien worlds with multiple telescopes and observatories, both on the ground and in space. For even more information and visualizations of these alien worlds, check out NASA’s Eyes on Exoplanets mobile app.
The Exoplanet Travel Bureau was developed by NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program communications team and program chief scientists. Based at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which is a division of Caltech, the program is NASA’s search for habitable planets and life beyond our solar system. The program develops technology and mission concepts, maintains exoplanet data archives and conducts ground-based exoplanet science for NASA missions.
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