Explore Distant Exoplanets With These NASA Simulations

Scientists have discovered thousands of alien worlds beyond the solar system. Here’s what some of them might look like on the surface.

|
May 30 2018, 12:00pm

One of the coolest scientific findings of the past 25 years is that our galaxy is packed with alien worlds. Scientists have detected nearly 4,000 exoplanets orbiting stars beyond the solar system, and the hunt is only gaining momentum as more sophisticated telescopes become operational.

While it’s electrifying to know that the universe is awash in planets, even the most powerful telescopes can’t capture any detailed features, such as the view of the skies from their surfaces. But NASA has the next best thing—the Exoplanet Travel Bureau, which includes retro-style interstellar tourism posters and an interactive tool that simulates vistas on known exoplanets, based on real scientific findings about their properties.

For instance, NASA recently debuted a 360-degree surface visualization of Kepler-186f, which is an Earth-scale planet located 550 light years away. Kepler-186f has fascinated exoplanet enthusiasts because it orbits a small red dwarf star within the habitable zone—which means liquid water could potentially exist on the planet’s surface—making it a juicy candidate in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In NASA’s visualization, you can experience Kepler-186f with and without an atmosphere, since the planet is too far away to yield atmospheric data. The difference between the imaginings of each world is dramatic, highlighting the importance of an atmosphere to habitability assessments.

Read More: NASA Taunts Us With Exoplanet Tourism Posters

You can also check out visualizations of the Saturn-scale planet Kepler-16b, which is 200 light years from Earth. Here, double shadows are cast due to the world’s proximity to two stars.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There’s also a virtual tour of TRAPPIST-1d, a mere 40 light years away, which is part of a solar system that is jam-packed with Earth-scale planets. In fact, the view from both Kepler-16b and TRAPPIST-1d makes for great celestial eye-candy, as their sibling planets appear much larger in the skies than our neighboring planets.

Nobody knows what these newly detected destinations actually look like, and these simulations are probably romanticized versions of the truth. But given that it will likely take centuries before humans get a close-up glimpse of any exoplanets, assuming we ever do, it’s worth suspending your belief for a second so that you can enjoy these gorgeous speculative landscapes of worlds that really do exist.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.