NASA has entered the (virtual) travel business with the opening of its new Exoplanet Travel Bureau. Part of the space agency's Exoplanet Exploration website, the new "bureau" is really an interactive educational site that provides internet visitors with 360-degree artist's impressions of what the surface of a number of exoplanets might look like, as well as a collection of downloadable travel posters for those who can't wait for someone to invent a hyperdrive.
For over a quarter of a century, space scientists have been finding and confirming the existence of exoplanets – planets that orbit stars other than our Sun or even float free in interstellar space. Thanks to space telescopes like Kepler, the number of confirmed exoplanets is now in the thousands, with many more candidates awaiting confirmation.
But one frustrating aspect of all this success is that it doesn't provide much for the public imagination to latch onto. The conquest of the Moon and the solar system has been aided by the return to Earth of moon rocks and spectacular images from as far off as Pluto, but exoplanet hunting only gives us spectrograms and light intensity curves – hardly the stuff of romance and space opera.
The communications team and program chief scientists at NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California hope to change that with the Exoplanet Travel Bureau. By taking dull astronomical data, mixing it with a bit of imagination and a dash of poetic license, they've created explorable landscapes of what the surface of an exoplanet might look like.
NASA stresses that the alien panoramas are largely hypothetical because very little is actually known about individual exoplanets, but the goal is to give the public some idea of what these worlds might look like under given conditions. The interactive visualizations include the planet TRAPPIST-1d with a blood-red sky, an imaginary moon of the superplanet Kepler-16b that circles twin suns, and Kepler-186f, which circles a cool red dwarf star.
The views not only show the surface of the exoplanets, but are also annotated with click-on areas that tell more about the landscape and sky features. In addition, Kepler-186f allows the visitor to switch between a view of the planet with and without an atmosphere to show the effects on the sky and the surface.
For those of a more touristy bent who are annoyed that there aren't faster-than-light cruises laid on to these new worlds, NASA has also uploaded posters extolling the attractions of vacation spots beyond the solar system, including PSO J318.5-22, an extrasolar planet that orbits no star, but floats in interstellar space, making it a place where the "nightlife never ends."
"Because Kepler-186f and the majority of Kepler-discovered planets are so distant, it is currently impossible to detect their atmospheres – if they exist at all – or characterize their atmospheric properties," says Martin Still, program scientist for NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). "Consequently, we have limited knowledge about what these distant worlds are really like, but these surface visualizations allow us to imagine some of the possibilities. Current and future NASA missions, including TESS and the James Webb Space Telescope, will find the nearest exoplanets to our solar system and characterize their atmospheres, bridging the gap between speculation and what's really out there."
Take a trip via NASA's Exoplanet Travel Bureau.
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