We live at the dawn of an exoplanet explosion. Just a couple decades ago, we couldn't be sure if any planets existed outside our own solar system, and now we know about thousands of them. NASA announced this week that its Kepler spacecraft has discovered its 1,000th alien planet, which is followed by several thousand more "planet candidates" waiting in the wings for official confirmation.
It's hard not to marvel about what might be happening on all those other worlds right now — and what might happen if we ever visit them. That's a familiar focus of science fiction, but planetary science is growing so quickly that our imaginations are often left scrambling to keep up. From movies like "Interstellar" to short films like "Wanderers," we can now picture other planets more realistically than ever, and we're increasingly obsessed with the real-world implications of visiting other real worlds.
And who better to illustrate that intrigue than NASA, the agency that first put humans on the moon?
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is doing just that, unveiling a new series of vintage-style posters advertising hypothetical exoplanet vacations. Credited to the fictional "Exoplanet Travel Bureau," these tongue-in-cheek posters combine the visual aesthetics of 1930s and '40s national parks posters with a measured dose of sci-fi whimsy, producing artwork that evokes both nostalgia and awe for the future. And while they inevitably take some creative liberties to depict places no one has ever seen, they also serve as reminders of how rapidly we're beginning to understand the universe around us.
For a closer look at a few out-of-this-world vacation destinations, check out the first three posters (and accompanying explanations) in NASA's Exoplanet Travel Series:
"Like Luke Skywalker's planet 'Tatooine' in Star Wars, Kepler-16b orbits a pair of stars. Depicted here as a terrestrial planet, Kepler-16b might also be a gas giant like Saturn. Prospects for life on this unusual world aren't good, as it has a temperature similar to that of dry ice. But the discovery indicates that the movie's iconic double-sunset is anything but science fiction."
"Kepler-186f is the first Earth-size planet discovered in the potentially 'habitable zone' around another star, where liquid water could exist on the planet's surface. Its star is much cooler and redder than our Sun. If plant life does exist on a planet like Kepler-186f, its photosynthesis could have been influenced by the star's red-wavelength photons, making for a color palette that's very different than the greens on Earth. This discovery was made by Kepler, NASA's planet hunting telescope."
"Twice as big in volume as the Earth, HD 40307g straddles the line between 'Super-Earth' and 'mini-Neptune' and scientists aren't sure if it has a rocky surface or one that's buried beneath thick layers of gas and ice. One thing is certain though: at eight times the Earth's mass, its gravitational pull is much, much stronger."