New worlds ahoy! Until we reach the TRAPPIST-1 system, six SFnal worlds for you to visit

Gautham Shenoy February 24, 2017 8 min

Since the dawn of civilisation as we know it, and quite possibly since even before that, humankind has gazed at the stars and created new worlds — through myths and legends. This continues unabated till today, with science fiction creating new worlds in books, movies, comics and songs.

Space has always been the final frontier, and maybe our species isn’t meant to stick around to just our home planet. With technology slowly, but surely, catching up with our dreams, maybe our collective destiny is the same as the mission of the starship Enterprise in Star Trek — “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no person has gone before.”

So, it wasn’t surprising that the announcement by NASA about the discovery of the first-known system of seven Earth-sized planets around a single star — TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation Aquarius — was greeted with much joy, amazement, optimism and a Google doodle.

Here are six of the ones most SF worlds that are welcoming enough for a vacation, a backpacking trip or intriguing enough to visit, as made so by their respective creators  

These exoplanets — named TRAPPIST-1b, TRAPPIST-1c and so on up to TRAPPIST-1h — aren’t the first exoplanets discovered. But what makes the discovery amazing is that this is the largest single batch of planets discovered around a single star. And, even more interestingly, not one, but at least three of these exoplanets are firmly located in the goldilocks zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water and be capable of supporting life (yay!).

The exoplanets of the TRAPPIST-1 system

The lead image above is an artist’s concept that allows us to imagine what it would be like to stand on the surface of the fifth of these exoplanets, TRAPPIST-1f. This planet is already being compared, as far as looks go, to the depiction of Vulcan, the home planet of Spock in Star Trek.

And these exoplanets are not so far away, just about 40 light years or 12 parsecs from here. A generation ship capable of achieving even a third of light-speed would take only 120 years to reach TRAPPIST-1. NASA/JPL-Caltech even has a marketing poster ready, for the time when planet-hopping in this seven-world system will be possible (below).

But that is still some time away.

Till then, we have enough worlds to visit and explore, albeit within the pages of books or on our preferred screens — the science fictional worlds beyond our solar system (sorry Mars!).

Here are six of them. The ones most welcoming enough for a vacation, a backpacking trip or intriguing enough to visit, as made so by their respective creators.

I would’ve included worlds such as Superman’s home planet Krypton, Cybertron from the Transformers or Gallifrey, the planet of the Time Lords from Doctor Who, but these sadly no longer exist, having been destroyed or no longer existing in canon. Neither does this list include worlds that are either used fleetingly as a backdrop only and/or are injurious to human life, such as Heinlein’s Klendaatu in Starship Troopers or LV-246 from Alien, which may be nice and gigeresque, but nothing else.

So, without further ado, here goes:

1. Pandora

The fifth moon of the gas giant Polyphemus, which orbits Alpha Centauri A in the Alpha Centauri star system (the closest one to our own sun at just 4.37 light years away), Pandora is brimming with life, exotic locales and even more exotic flora and fauna. With gravity that is 20% lesser than Earth, you weigh less there, making it easier to trek up the awesome Hallelujah floating mountains. A lush paradise by day, it gets even better night with all of Pandora’s life forms exhibiting bioluminescent qualities after nightfall. The air is poisonous for humans though, so be sure to wear your exo-mask. The indigenous Na’vi are friendly as long as you aren’t after their precious natural resources or meddle with their way of life. And the icing on the cake would be if you could get an avatar body of your own to explore the world in, with them cool “plug-and-play” tails.

2. Mongo

The primary setting for all the adventures of Flash Gordon and his friends, the Earth-like Mongo has a truly diverse ecosystem, ranging from large swamplands and tropical rainforests to pristine oceans and islands (which have lovely beaches!), mountain regions and frozen continents. The only thing more diverse than its ecosystem are its inhabitants — the winged Hawkmen, the tailed Lion-Men, the underwater-dwelling Coralians to name a few — with their technology ranging from stone age-type tools to supercool high-tech gadgets. As far as getting the best of all the worlds goes, it doesn’t get better than Mongo, especially now that the tyrant king Ming has been overthrown. Just make sure you avoid the primitive tribes too, and don’t forget to explore the extensive underground domains and cave systems Mongo is famous for.

3. Arrakis

More popularly known as Dune from the classic sci-fi series by Frank Herbert, Arrakis is a desert planet that is the farthest from Earth at about 310 light years. It orbits the star Canopus or Alpha Carinae, the second-brightest star in the night sky after Sirius. A trip here is definitely not a walk on the beach (there are none on Dune), but knowing the Fremen, the nomadic inhabitants of Dune, makes up for it a bit. Living with them in their tents wearing their stillsuit technology is an adventure. And a big plus is that Dune is the only place in the universe where you can see the legendary Sandworms, and the only source of the equally legendary Melange (or simply, ‘the spice’) — the most valuable commodity in the Dune universe that can extend by far the lifespan of the person who consumes it, while giving him or her greater vitality and heightened awareness. Without Sandworms, accurate and safe interstellar travel wouldn’t be possible. So, enjoy a bit of spice (be warned, it can be addictive), as you soak in the cold Arrakis nights while gazing at its two orbiting moons.

4. Mogo

The only sentient and living planet on this list, Mogo is the Green Lantern of Sector 2216. First appearing in one of the greatest short stories told in comic form, Mogo Doesn’t Socialise by writer Alan Moore and his Watchmen collaborator, artist Dave Gibbons, Mogo can control its ecosystem and biosphere. With lush forests, waterbodies and varied fauna, Mogo is the place to go for members of the Green Lanterns Corps for some rest and recuperation. And therein lies the catch, you can only go to Mogo or make landfall on its surface if you’re a Green Lantern. You may not be one now, but you never know.

5. Naboo

Tatooine is a harsh and lawless desert planet, so is Jakku. Dagobah is a dark, depressing swamp planet. So, of all the planets in the planet-producing Star Wars universe, Naboo is your best choice for a visit. Located in the Chommel sector in the galactic mid-rim, Naboo has not one or two but three moons to gaze upon at night. It’s got all the geographical diversity you could wish for — lovely swamps, rolling grass plains, verdant forests, breathtaking waterfalls and an awesome underwater world. Not to mention the lovely architecture and culture of the humans that live on the surface, with enough of the arts to keep you occupied. The only negative I can think of is Jar Jar Binks, quite possible the only reason you’d never ever want to visit Naboo, despite everything else.

6. Coyote

Approximately 46 light years away in the 47 Ursae Majoris system, Coyote is one of the six satellites of the third planet known as Bear, and large enough to support its own biosphere. (Coyote is also the name of a novel by Allen Steel, one of the best hard-SF novels in recent years.) The human colonists, dissidents and rebels escaping from an oppressive country have already landed to start a new life. It’s a place very similar to earth with familiar-looking flora and fauna, but not quite the same. The geographical highlight is the long, winding river that snakes its way around Coyote’s equator. Grasslands and waterfalls abound, as do gigantic birds, so beware.

But what about the TRAPPIST-1 system? Since this supremely exciting discovery has kindled science-fictional dreams in us all, surely it deserves an SF story of its own? Yes it does, and the story already exists! Published in the latest issue of the journal Nature and written by Swiss science fiction writer and graphic artist, Laurence Suhner, it’s called The Terminator and is set three centuries in the future, on Trappist-1e, now renamed Nuwa by Earth’s colonists.

Given that it was the Belgian telescope TRAPPIST (Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope) that first discovered this star and whose acronym is a homage to the order of Christian monks known as Trappists and the fine Trappist beer they brew, I wish the author had named the exoplanets Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, etc after the beers. But this minor detail apart, it is still a nice — and very short — read with a 2001-ish twist. So, as you go on to read The Terminator, I wish you to live long and prosper and hope to see you here again next Friday for another edition of New Worlds Weekly.


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