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The home screen of the Journey to the Exoplanets iPad app offers an array of options.

Review: Journey to the Exoplanets

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Journey to the Exoplanets
Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, v1.1, 2011, 398 MB
iPad (iOS 4.0 and later)

The field of extrasolar planet, or exoplanet, studies has arguably been one of the most active in all of astronomy over the last decade and a half. Astronomers discovered the first planets orbiting a Sun-like star in 1995 (a few had been found several years earlier around a pulsar); earlier this month the total number of known exoplanets exceeded 700. More major announcements of exoplanet discoveries, particularly in data collected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, are likely to come next week at the First Kepler Science Conference in California.
The centerpiece of the app is its “Exoplanet Gallery” of over 80 illustrations, created by noted space artist Ron Miller, of some of the known exoplanets (plus several hypothetical ones).

This dynamic nature makes exoplanets particularly well-suited to multimedia applications that, in addition to their ability to use video and audio, can be updated or access online resources to provide the latest updates on exoplanet discoveries and related news. Journey to the Exoplanets, an iPad application recently released by Scientific American magazine and publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, seeks to put the galaxy of exoplanet discoveries literally at one’s fingertips. It’s an app that succeeds in some areas but falls short in others.

The app’s home screen looks like the aft portion of a Space Shuttle cabin, albeit one orbiting an alien world. Various screens (as well as a bar of icons across the top of the screen) link to the app’s main features. Some of them are predominantly text, and are even rather basic, like “What Is A Planet?” and “What Is A Star?”. Others are more interactive, such as a “Planet Builder” that allows you to adjust the mass, age, and distance from one of three kinds of stars of your very own exoplanet, and see if you end up with an Earth-like world or a bloated gas giant.

The centerpiece of the app, though, is its “Exoplanet Gallery”. It features over 80 illustrations, created by noted space artist Ron Miller, of what some of the known exoplanets (plus several hypothetical ones) may look like. They range from so-called “hot Jupiters” being ripped apart by their parent stars to worlds potentially more hospitable to life. Many of the illustrations include brief audio descriptions by Caleb Scharf, director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center. Some of the images can be panned simply by moving the iPad back and forth (although, in practice, it’s easier to simply swipe a finger across the screen to move the panorama.) Each image includes some basic information about that exoplanet, although the app uses a non-intuitive and clunky dial-like interface to access that information when a few buttons would make more sense.

One missed opportunity in Journey to the Exoplanets is to make the app more of a, well, application: a resource people will make use of regularly, as opposed to a multimedia electronic book read once and then set aside.

The app’s other content is something of a mixed bag. A section on finding exoplanets does an excellent job describing some of the major techniques used to discover these worlds, combining text with animations of how the radial velocity and transit methods—the techniques that account for nearly all exoplanet discoveries—work. However, a section on “Radiation and Space Travel” seems tangential, at best, to the app’s primary subject: yes, if humans are one day to travel to these exotic planets, we will need to figure out how to protect humans from the dangers of cosmic radiation, but that’s hardly the only, or even biggest, challenge facing interstellar travel, as the recent DARPA/NASA 100-Year Starship Study Symposium discussed (see “The journey of 100 years begins with a single weekend”, The Space Review, October 10, 2011).

One missed opportunity in Journey to the Exoplanets is to make the app more of a, well, application: a resource people will make use of regularly, as opposed to a multimedia electronic book read once and then set aside. There is, for example, no list of all the known exoplanets that a reader could either browse through or search; something that, if regularly updated and combined with the app’s multimedia strengths, could make it an invaluable research tool. (For those looking for something like that, sans the multimedia pizzazz, the free iPad/iPhone app Exoplanet may fit the bill.) The app includes an “Exoplanet News” feature, but that appears to be only a generic space news feed from Scientific American’s web site, featuring articles with headlines like “Soyuz Makes Launch from South American ESA Site” and “Chinese Space Program Takes Giant Leap” that have nothing to do with exoplanets. To be fair, the app is not static: a version 1.1 update released earlier this month includes several new illustrations and an essay by Miller.

As previously noted here, while apps like Journey to the Exoplanets are hailed as “breakthrough” publications, they are in many respects reincarnations of the multimedia PC programs that were popular for a time in the 1990s after CD-ROMs became ubiquitous in PCs but before broadband Internet access did (see “Reviews: Envisioning the universe”, The Space Review, January 3, 2011). Tablet apps, be they for the iPad or its Android-powered cousins, are rapidly changing as developers try to leverage the strengths of these devices, just as the number and types of exoplanets are rapidly growing. For all its strengths, Journey to the Exoplanets and apps like it will also have to evolve to keep up with both the science of exoplanets and how to effectively communicate it.