George Lucas dreamed up planets with two suns and cloud cities, and Gene Roddenberry invented dozens of worlds that were all suspiciously similar to the Southern California desert. But as actual space exploration advances and we start to learn what's really on the surface of those distant worlds, it becomes increasingly clear that our imagination has no chance of competing with the jaw-dropping, pants-peeing craziness outer space is capable of cooking up.
For instance ...
This may seem completely foreign to you, but just for a moment try to pretend you are Han Solo (ladies, you can pretend you're Princess Leia). You are in the rebel base on the planet Hoth, and every inch of the entire planet is covered in ice. What you are picturing right now is somewhere close to the actual Gliese 436 b. The key difference, however, is that the planet is so close to its star that it stays at a consistent 800 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface.
In other words, T-shirt weather.
"So where the hell did all this damn ice come from?" you say, because it's understandably confusing and because once you're Han, it's hard to step out of character. Everyone knows there's no way that ice, let alone liquid water, can exist at more than four times its boiling temperature.
But Gliese 436 b has the remarkable ability to defy everything you know about the predictability of matter. The gravity on the planet is so powerful that it compresses all of the water vapor in the atmosphere and pushes it together into a solid, forming a thick layer over the entire planet of what scientists call "ice ten."
It's like Satan's Aspen.
So the result is kind of like the ice we have here on Earth, except it would do absolutely nothing for a warm soda, and holding a hunk of it in your hand would require you to get a new hand. So it would make the world's most awesome, destructive snowman, is what we're saying.
WASP-12b is the planet equivalent of a fly caught in a web. The gravitational pull from its sun has lured the planet in so close that WASP-12b can't escape the orbit, and now the star can take its time consuming it. In fact, planets like WASP-12b are known as "insect" planets rotating around "arachnid web suns," according to the space terminology we just made up.
But it's this devouring that makes the planet interesting. The proximity to the star has heated up the atmosphere, causing it to balloon to an absurd size. This means WASP-12b is literally too fat to escape the gravitational force of the star, and as a result it's being distorted into the shape of a football.
Sorry, Europeans. It's our word now.
The whole planet has become oblong as the sun eats away the mass of WASP-12b at 6 billion metric tons per second. Eventually, it will be sucked up into the outer layer of the sun, which is of particular interest to astronomers because they can actually see the last stages of the life of a planet.
In addition, they can see the remnants of another planet that was already torn apart and now flecks the surface of the star, a planet they suspect had a lower density and was a lot like Earth. Given that WASP-12b was likely about the size of Jupiter before it bloated with all the heat, what we could be looking at is the future of our own solar system. So (Spoiler Alert) things look pretty grim.
More of an egg than a football. By the way, we're taking the word "egg," too.
In a long list of horrible planets that would do horrible things to you, think of HD 69830 c as an intermission. In the future, when interstellar space travel is possible and every family has its own shuttle, this will almost certainly be the planet teenagers will bring dates to in the hopes of getting laid.
HD 69830 c is exactly the right distance from its star for liquid water to form. That will come in handy for reflecting the vast glowing beam of light that never leaves the sky, like a permanent shooting star.
It's the best real estate in the galaxy, but the local HOA are assholes.
For comparison, our solar system has an asteroid belt, one you probably don't recall seeing in the night sky, because it's so far from Earth and the asteroids are so far apart that it's practically invisible to the naked eye. HD 69830 c has a similar belt that's 10 times closer than and 20 times as massive as ours. That translates to a light so bright that it's 1,000 times more intense than the Milky Way. Looking at this ring would be the equivalent of looking at the very center of a comet, except stretching brilliantly across the entire sky.
And considering the proximity of the asteroid belt to the planet, you can expect some heavy meteor showers every single night, making HD 69830 c the pinnacle of romantic stargazing. We hope it's comforting to know that the peak of future of space exploration may be your great-great-grandchildren having tons of shuttle sex on the planet equivalent of Lookout Point.
"OH, COME ON!"
As strange as all the worlds on this list have been, they share the same characteristic we expect from our planets: They orbit a star. Well, some planets aren't interested in conforming to The Man's expectations. For instance, PSR B1257+12 b is the first of a handful of planets ever discovered orbiting a pulsar.
For anyone unfamiliar, a pulsar is somewhere between a star and a black hole. A star naturally collapses in on itself throughout its life until the buildup of pressure at its core is so great that it explodes into a nova or supernova. What's left at the end of the explosion is the dense core that's only about 10 miles in diameter called a neutron star. If that neutron star continues to spit out radiation and light, then we call it a pulsar. In short, PSR B1257+12 b orbits a giant, radioactive disco ball.
Those of you who live in Las Vegas already sort of know what that feels like.
That means that the only light the planet ever gets is full of deadly radiation, but at least it looks awfully pretty. Pulsars emit beams in pulses because they're rotating, so if you were standing on the planet, it would look like a giant blue strobe in the sky.
This really isn't the planet for epileptic astronauts, and technically it's really not a planet for anyone -- PSR B1257+12 b is bathed in so much radiation that one side of it actually glows blue.
"Excuse me, vacation planner ... we were promised powers?"
Saturn's moon Titan is the only moon we know of with its own atmosphere. In fact, the atmosphere is so thick that we had no idea what the surface was made of until we sent a probe in 2005 (yes, we were banking on cheese here as well). From Titan, you wouldn't even be able to see Saturn's rings, because every day is the equivalent of the most miserable day in Seattle or England. Except instead of raining water, it rains fuel.
And the coffee is shit.
The dreary overcast skies are a result of cryovolcanoes, which spew out water and ammonia in lieu of magma. And the clouds are made up of liquid methane, the primary component of natural gas. In fact, there is so much gas-rain that it's formed entire rivers and oceans. The polar lakes alone house hundreds of times more oil and natural gas than every known oil and gas reserve on Earth. The whole moon is an oil tycoon's wet dream. Oh, and speaking of dreams, did we mention you can fly on Titan?
The atmosphere is dense enough and the gravity is weak enough that if you could construct yourself a set of wings, you could absolutely flap around through the sky, taking in the sights of that dismal, toxic wasteland.
Oh, don't worry, that's a false color image of the lakes. The real version is as dark as your most guarded nightmares.
Yet despite the moon being a veritable hell, life may already be there. Scientists suspect that life on Titan may use methane instead of water for its primary functions, keeping warm with the tidal heat deep within the moon's core. In a few centuries we could feasibly be fighting oil-based life forms for the very resource that's keeping them alive. Suddenly, Avatar seems a lot less absurd.
Of the limited number of planets where humanity might actually be able to live, Gliese 581 c is the closest. But don't think that means it looks like Earth. Assuming it could sustain life, here's exactly what you could expect:
The planet orbits a red dwarf, so the sky would always be a bloody crimson. The red light wouldn't just make you feel strange; it would affect all vegetation, forcing every plant to attain photosynthetic energy from the infrared spectrum. The tangible consequence of that is that every plant would look pitch black.
Holy shit, we finally found out where goths come from!
You would also wake up each day to a perpetual state of twilight. That's because Gliese 581 c is so close to its star that it doesn't revolve anymore; one side of the planet always faces the star, and one side stays in darkness forever. The only place where you or anything else could survive is on the narrow strip between the two where the temperature is just right.
It can't be arsed to rotate. We may finally have found Laziness Valhalla.
And with one side of the planet always hot and one always cold, you can expect some strange weather patterns, with gale winds perpetually surging from the hot to the cold side every day, along with permanent torrential rain, because there are no seasons.
So to summarize: red skies, black plants, gale winds, never-ending twilight and a step too far in one direction could lead to either freezing to death or incineration.
So it's probably best to check with MapQuest before even going down the block.
And yet, rather than tiptoeing around that planet and looking for life somewhere a little less terrifying, we're doing our best to wake up whatever nightmare might be living there already. In October 2008, we sent a message from Earth directly at Gliese 581 c, and it should reach the devil planet around 2029. Then, presumably, misfortune will infest our souls for eternity, but think of how much it will teach us about space!
Nick Dobkin likes starting epic sci-fi animations that he never intends to finish. Find him on Twitter.
For more on the awesome magnitude of space, check out The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Things Ever Discovered in Space and 5 Cosmic Events That Could Kill You Before Lunch.