New developments in astrophysics and planetary science are always exciting, but providing a visual representation for public consumption can be difficult. No institution in the United States is more challenged to do this on a regular basis than NASA. A software portal at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory bridges this gap between technical data and visual imagery with a dazzling visual representation of exoplanets.
RANGER is a three-dimensional, browser-based visualization system for use by both mission planners and the general public for the visual representation of objects in space. From nearby planets such as Mars, to distant worlds around other stars (such as the exoplanets discovered in the TRAPPIST-1 system, over 40 light years away), Ranger allows for online exploration of these other worlds via easily-mastered and intuitive manipulation inside a web browser.
Vast data resources are at the core of Ranger’s capabilities: planet sizes, surface terrain, atmospheric models, planetary masses, star types, orbits, and more are stored for real-time manipulation by advanced algorithms. While there are artistic impressions included to round-out Ranger’s presentation capabilities—nobody knows what exoplanets actually look like yet—the software is skewed towards hard data and known properties wherever possible, offering the most accurate representations available. While the general public can use Ranger to explore the vast reaches of space, it is more than a successful public relations and educational tool. Ranger was derived from software designed to assist engineers and scientists in planning NASA’s deep space missions, and is capable of mission-critical levels of accuracy. Mission planners may one day use their smartphones to plan missions to Jupiter or Proxima Centauri.
While RANGER is based on mission
planning software, the interface is very user friendly and fun. Sections include the “Exoplanet Travel Bureau,” which has a series of whimsical travel posters that link to artistic renderings of exoplanet surfaces; “Strange New Worlds,” which charts exoplanet star systems with an interactive algorithm; “Universe of Monsters,” which describes some of the weirdest exoplanets; and “Galaxy of Horrors,” a collection of the scariest places in space imaginable. RANGER is addictive, and hours can be spent exploring concepts of distant worlds and playing with the interactive toolset.
Ranger’s core features are continually expanded and improved. For example, a shadow tracker was added for the 2017 total solar eclipse that crossed much of the continental United States. While most of the data in Ranger comes from NASA, several external institutions have been involved in its evolution. One of these partner institutions, Arizona State University, can interact with Ranger as part of their Earth and space science curriculum, adding new data from their own research. More partners are joining the effort each year. Even the United States Navy is involved with Ranger, with an eye towards visualizing simulated and actual trajectories for autonomous underwater vehicles in challenging environments such as beneath the arctic icecap.