Cool video flies us through the incredible variety of known exoplanet star systems

The above video, created by Tom Hands, a PhD student in the Theoretical Astrophysics group at the University of Leicester, takes us on an incredible journey.

Using the collected data in the Open Exoplanet Catalogue — which contains information on 1774 different exoplanets in 1081 star systems — Hands produced this great visualization to show us the variety of what's out there. The way Hands arranged this, we're basically zooming past all the planetary systems we've found that orbit a single star, so it leaves out binary systems and so forth, just for simplicity's sake.

The first we encounter is the one orbiting the white dwarf star named WD 0806-661, which is about 63 light years from Earth. The single planet we've found orbiting it, WD 0806-661B, is a massive gas giant, roughly 10 times the size of Jupiter, that has the furthest distance we've ever seen between a planet and its star — 2,500 astronomical units (AU), or 2,500 times the distance from the Earth to the sun. For comparison, the farthest object that we know about in our solar system, the dwarf planet Sedna, apparently reaches a maximum distance of 937 AU.

As the video proceeds, the systems get smaller and smaller, until we reach the planet with the closest orbit to its star. It's a little hard to see the name in the video, but it's probably PSR J1719-1438 b. This planet, which orbits the rotating remnant of a massive star that went supernova (a pulsar), is estimated at roughly four times the size of Earth, but with a mass comparable to Jupiter, making it the densest planet every discovered. PSR J1719-1438 b orbits at a distance of just 660,000 kilometres from the centre of its star. If you dropped it into our solar system, at the same distance from the centre of our sun, it would orbit inside the sun (which has a radius of 690,000 km).

You may notice that, as the video continues, it looks like some systems are mixed in with others that are bigger or smaller, going against the 'biggest to smallest' theme. However, the video is organized by the 'semi-major axis' of the largest planet orbit in the system, rather than using the maximum distance that the outermost planet reaches. Earth, for example, has a fairly circular orbit, so its semi-major axis is only slightly greater than one astronomical unit. Sedna's orbit, though, has a highly-elongated ellipse, centred well outside the boundaries of the outer solar system, with a semi-major axis of over 530 AU. So, those 'out of place' systems indicate some highly-elliptical orbits.

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If you'd like to see the details of this simulation (and I highly recommend it), visit Hand's ExoVis simulation, which was the winning entry for the Open Exoplanet Catalogue 2013 visualisation contest. On that page, you can scroll up and down through all these star systems, to check them out in much finer detail than you can see in the video.

Just a few decades ago, we had to delve into science fiction if we wanted to explore planets in other star systems. However, thanks to the efforts of dedicated astronomers here on the ground, and the incredible science and engineering behind the Kepler Space Telescope, we now know of the existence of hundreds of real planets, and we've even directly imaged some of them. With the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, and other large telescopes built or in development here on Earth, we may soon be able to see more and more of these planets for ourselves.

Personally, I can't wait!

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