We are both physics graduate students, James is a accelerator physicist and Leo is an astrophysicist, and we wanted to create something fun and interactive to increase the public knowledge of how science is done and how wonderful our universe is. After lots of brainstorming, we wanted to do something with exoplanets, as neither of us specialize in exoplanetary astrophysics, but it is an exciting and rapidly-growing subfield in public perception.
What it does
We found API of all confirmed exoplanets as of Sept 29th, 2016 and scraped it. Using this data, we were able to determine the positions of each confirmed exoplanet on the sky, as well is its distance, and the properties of its host star and its orbit. Now, you can use VirtualSky to not only view the positions of our solar system bodies, stars, and constellations interactively at any given date, time, and position on the Earth, but now you can see the positions of all confirmed exoplanets (all ~3400 of them!) at the same time! You can also choose to sort which exoplanets you can see. Exoplanets discovered by stellar transits (by passing in front of their host star and causing a dip in brightness), radial velocity measurements (measuring the minute changes in the host star's spectrum from the planet's gravitational pull on it, causing periodic redshifts and blueshifts), gravitational microlensing (the gravity from the planet distorting the light of the host star based on Einstein's law of General Relativity), and direct imaging (taking a picture of it!), can all be plotted on the sky individually or at the same time, in different colors. You can also click on each planet to be taken to a webpage with its properties on Open Exoplanet Catalogue.
How I built it
We used the existing VirtualSky platform and built onto it. VirtualSky is a browser-based code that plots the positions of solar system objects and stars at any given date, time, and position on the Earth, and allows you to move your field of view interactively spatially and temporally. We modified this code to allow us to plot other objects of our choosing. We found our exoplanet information on https://github.com/openexoplanetcatalogue/open_exoplanet_catalogue/. Using this information we were able to determine all positions and put it into a readable format for our code. We were also able to, based on host star properties such as distance from the Earth and surface Temperature, able to determine a relative brightness system so that all objects would be easy to view, but distant or faint objects would appear smaller.
Challenges I ran into
We had to understand the viewer and how it worked in order to change it, with little direction or documentation. The data were also incomplete in places and we needed to figure out how to work with this data to make it viewable.
Accomplishments that I'm proud of
We put in an easter egg involving the infamous Octocat :) We also got our idea to work, and we were actually able to pick out exactly where the most intense surveys were conducted on the sky. It's fun seeing the Kepler observations in such detail!
What I learned
What's next for Exoplanet Viewer
Viewing other astronomical fields, like the Hubble Deep Field, and current fields of research like COSMOS, UDS, and CDFS, which are under heavy scrutiny by astronomers. We will be including pictures and links to each field used for current research! We also plan to debut this at the 2017 Texas A&M Physics Festival on April 1st. This way the public can actually be exposed to exoplanet discovery methods and fields.