Simulating Exoplanet Discoveries with Python | by Lee Vaughan | Dec, 2023

Quick Success Data Science

The awesome power of modeling!

Venus transiting the sun in June 2012 (Evan Clark via Real-world Python)

Before I flew to Idaho to photograph the Great American Eclipse of 2017, I did my homework. The totality event, when the moon completely covered the sun, lasted only 2 minutes and 10 seconds. That left no time for experimenting, testing, or figuring things out on the fly.

To successfully capture images of the penumbra, umbra, solar flares, and diamond ring effect, I had to know exactly what equipment to take, what camera settings to use, and when these events would occur. With the help of the internet, I was able to work this out and prepare a precise timetable for my location.

The sun looking like a diamond ring during the 2017 solar eclipse.
The diamond ring effect during the 2017 total solar eclipse (by the author)

Similarly, computer simulations prepare scientists for making observations of the natural world. They help them understand what to expect and when to expect it, and how to calibrate their instruments and design their experiments.

The goal of this article is to showcase the practical applications of simulations using exoplanet transit events. Exoplanets are celestial bodies that orbit stars beyond our solar system.

Astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets using a technique called transit photometry, which records the slight dimming of a star’s light as an exoplanet passes between the star and Earth. We can use a transit simulator to understand the impact of factors like a planet’s size and the presence of sunspots, asteroid fields, moons, and even alien megastructures.

To build the simulator, we’ll use OpenCV, Python’s premier open-source library for working with images and videos, and Tkinter, Python’s built-in tool for building graphical user interfaces (GUIs). We’ll use the latter to make a dashboard. Here’s a preview:

A dashboard with an image of the sun traversed by a black dot with a graph of the resulting light curve below.
The Exoplanet Transit Dashboard in action (by the author)

In astronomy, a transit occurs when a relatively small celestial body passes directly…

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