Last night I watched an astronomy documentary on Netflix, Secrets of the Solar System. I loved astronomy documentaries, and the show Cosmos, but after a while, the same old information gets stale. I feel like I heard it all before in my astronomy courses at school, and no new information has really been added to the wealth that is already there, when it comes to publicly available media.

So it was to my surprise last night that I’d never heard the information in that show. It was all new. I devoured it voraciously, of course. As astronomers are learning more studying distant solar systems, they are able to piece together more information on our own solar system.

The documentary postulated which planets were formed first after the birth of the sun as a star. It even brought up a concept of hot versions of Jupiter that are out there, orbiting stars in other solar systems. It hypothesized that at one point, Jupiter was closing in on the sun, but then the formation of Saturn kept the Jupiter orbit from approaching closer and closer to the sun: a wandering Jupiter. It was all really interesting.

Perhaps the a-ha moment for me though, was the discovery of something called Kepler’s orrery. Now, an orrery is one of those mechanical models (with clockwork mechanisms) which intends to keep the planets, their orbits, and the distance from the sun to scale.

 photo orrery.jpg

However, if we did that, the planets would literally wind up kilometers away from our model sun, in some cases. Accurate scaling is not practical due to the large distances/ratios. So, they usually end up not to scale so we can keep them all in one tidy, little place.

Orreries can illustrate and predict where the planets are on any given date, past, present or future. You’ve seen them before, if you’ve seen the movie the Dark Crystal (pictured below), or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. They can be used to predict when eclipses will occur, when planets are aligned, and all kinds of important futuristic events written in the stars.

 photo dark crystal.jpg

Johannes Kepler was the mathematician and astronomer best known for his laws of planetary motion. He deduced planets orbit the sun in ellipses. His work formed the foundation for Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity.

Now, Kepler’s orrery is a little different. It’s a virtual display that shows the relative sizes of the orbits and planets in the multi-transiting planetary systems discovered by Kepler up to Nov. 2013. All the planetary systems discovered through 2013 are illustrated in a virtual collection of orreries. Planetary systems can vary so much – and our solar system is just as unique in its own formation. In Kepler’s orrery, the colors simply go by order from the star (the most colorful is the 7-planet system KOI-351). The terrestrial planets of the Solar System are shown in gray.

What I gathered from this collection of various solar systems we’ve observed is that each solar system is unique, like a snowflake, or a fingerprint. Some systems have two stars instead of just one; some have one central star like our sun, but contain only gaseous planets without terrestrial planets. Some stars rotate clockwise and have planets which run counterclockwise. Some are densely packed solar systems; some span great distances. The possibilities really are endless for what kinds of systems are out there, not just in our Milky Way galaxy, but in other galaxies too. It made me realize that had Saturn not been created from remnants further out in our solar system, Jupiter may have actually crashed into the sun, and we may not have Mercury, Venus, Earth, or Mars in our solar system at all. Our solar system may not have planets which sustain life, human life, at all. And even that came with time, and was a slow evolution within conditions that made it happen.

Our lives hinge on events that happened by chance, and hang in a delicate balance. It’s realistic (some say optimistic) to believe there has to be life out there on other planets. The problem is, maybe those planets will have life in millions of years, they’re just not there yet. They are all at different points along their journey, moving at different speeds, with different foci. All these planetary systems observed by Kepler hundreds of years ago have been studied by scientists at NASA in particular to aid in the search for habitable planets. However, there may be no escape hatch, no easy button, to continue the human race on other planets. That is the most conservative view. We have one planet, one chance.

We are all made up from various circumstances, too, just as solar systems are. Some we can control, but many we can’t. Things just happened. They’re a part of how we got here, though. Is it random? Is the variation planned through fractals or other mathematical concepts? Is there a master plan, or a higher power controlling all of this? Depends who you ask. It boggles my mind because I have to expand it wide for all the possibilities in this universe, but scale it down to focus on one or two small things to make a point. I don’t want to be on record as doubting intelligent life in space, thus that is where I must make my point. It must be out there. Given the variety of just the tiny sample humans have observed over our brief blink of an eye, it’s hard to believe. But I believe.

 photo cookie_1.gif

Maybe I have a little hope after all. It’s little, and it’s been beaten and bruised, kicked around and left for dead.