What if you could visit all the hundreds of exoplanets yet discovered? What if doing so required only the access to the internet and click from you computer’s mouse? Well, NASA has developed a planet simulator that catalogs all the known planets yet detected and outside the solar system, not only listing the characteristics of the extrasolar worlds but also anything that we humans know about them.
Vox reported Jan. 2 that NASA developed the exoplanet simulator, called the Eyes on Exoplanets simulator, as an educational tool and is available as a free download. With it one can explore all the alien worlds — all 1855, according to the Exoplanet Catalog — that have been detected and confirmed by NASA, the European Space Agency, and various astronomical studies. As Vox notes, with fresh exoplanets being discovered all the time, the simulator will only continue to expand.
The NASA simulator, once downloaded, will guide the user via colorful animations. There is even a rundown of the missions that have led to a vast number of the discoveries.
One of the animations depicts an ever-increasing-distance shot of the Solar System and the stars that have detected exoplanets orbiting them. There is a noticeable grouping in one particular area that denotes the planetary hunting grounds (so to speak) of the Kepler space telescope, which is responsible for detecting almost 1,000 extrasolar planets alone. As future telescopes are deployed and they are focused on other areas of the galaxy, similar groupings of stars will develop.
And it isn’t as if there won’t be plenty of targets. The Milky Way galaxy alone has an estimated 100 billion stars. It is also estimated, according to a study released in 2013, that at least 22 percent of the stellar systems that resemble our Sun could contain planets of an Earth-like alien world. That works out to roughly 20 billion potential rocky Earth-like planets.
Almost all exoplanets discovered thus far have been located within 1,000 light years of Earth. The Milky Way galaxy spans roughly 100,000 light years across, according to NASA. As might be surmised, distance becomes a problem for detecting exoplanets. Better telescopes and detecting devices will undoubtedly come with future scientific innovation, allowing planet hunters to explore at greater distances.
The discoveries also lend themselves to the search for extraterrestrial life. Vox reported in December that new telescopes coming online within the next decade or two could help in finding habitable planets. Some even believe that finding extraterrestrial life within another generation is possible. NASA itself predicted in July that alien life would be discovered in the next 20 years.
And if (when?) they do, whatever world life is found on, it will be viewable on the Eyes on Exoplanets simulator. Until then, the NASA simulator will be an invaluable educational tool for the public and perhaps even an inspiration for future astronomers, physicists, and astrobiologists.