Executing the Exos

Exoplanets - Wired UK - Information Is Beautiful
I’m fascinated by all the planets discovered outside of our solar system (exoplanets). Over 500 individual exoplanets have been confirmed since 1991. Many have exotic qualities, bizarre orbits and other characteristics that throw models of planetary formation into spasm. I wanted to visualize a compendium of the most fascinating. And make some of the distances involved more understandable. (There’s FAR too much use of the unit of light years in astrophysics).

RESEARCH We scraped all the exoplanets from exoplanets.org into a single spreadsheet. See our huge dataset here.

REFINING Next was to boil the list down to those with interesting stories and characteristics. The Hell planet? The planet where it rains pebbles? The planet with 27,000 mph winds? You got it. See the final list here.

EXPLORATION I wasn’t sure what kind of visualization would work best. Then I saw this diagram with an unusual Y axis and thought “oo”.

WOAH! Then I saw this on the NASA exoplanets site and thought “bong!”

ACCRETION First we had to gather all the exoplanets and get the size of the planets exactly right. The internet police are always ready to pounce if you get a fact wrong. (Especially the astrophysics internet police) So we used the to-scale renderings from the heavily-policed Wikipedia pages on exoplanets as reference guides for scaling.

JUMPING JUPITERS Originally I thought I might use rendered planets like these classic space visualisations do. But in the end I thought it was ‘out of style’.

PLOTTING So finally, after about four days of research and exactitude, we were ready to plot the planets.

RADIATION Is a horizontal scatterplot interesting enough? Maybe we should do a radial plot with Earth at the centre. With a generous nod to Hanno Rein’s amazing ExoPlanet iPhone app.

RADIATION SICKNESS Hmmmm, I like the radial plot. But it means we can’t include the awesome X-axis I have planned.

UNIVERSAL AXIS So the Y-axis is temperature. The x-axis is distance in light years, parsecs and – so that we can properly grok and comprehend these incredible distances – the amount of time it’ll take our fastest vessels to reach these planets.

CELEBRATIONI really wanted to explain and celebrate the incredible telescopic techniques used to detect these planets. So we set about trying to visualize the science with tightly optimised text descriptions. Here, another designer and I are having a detailed discussion about what works or doesn’t. Two minds are better that one – especially when dealing with science. We did 6 drafts of the copy in total.

INFOGRAPHICKING Okay. So. After 20 or so drafts, coming together now. Looking like a proper, interesting infographic.

CREATION! Here’s the final – all tightened and gridded. Yum!

First draft: 6th March 2010
Final draft: 12 December 2010
Drafts: 26
Designers: 3
Researchers: 3