It’s an iconic image, and a touchstone of science fiction: a cadre of spacefarers, having survived a devastating crash, emerge from the wreckage to take their first look around at the planet with which they will have to contend. On this new world they will either make a home, or perish. (Cue any nubile space maidens, insect warriors, or Federation representatives you may have backstage.)
But aside from the many Class-Ms on which Captain Kirk had disastrous dates, let’s face it: there really is no good planet on which to crash. And if things have already gone so badly that your brave, space-faring expedition has to make an emergency landing on some mapped-but-untested interstellar hinterland, you’re already pretty much up a creek.
However, since Murphy’s Law is the overriding constant of the universe, things can always be worse. And with these five planets (some of the galaxy’s wildest), we’ll show you just how bad a planetary crash-landing can get.
1. HD 149026 b
This planet’s star, HD 149026, is 257 light-years from Earth, so if you’re unlucky enough to crash land on this backwater, you can forget about a rescue. AAA’s roadside service does not extend to the Hercules constellation. We checked.
And that’s just the beginning of the bad news.
HD 149026 b is 114 times as massive as the Earth, and so close to its yellow subgiant of a star that a full orbit takes less than three days to complete. It’s also so dense that it has an effective albedo of zero, meaning that it absorbs close to 100% of the light and heat generated by HD 14026.
What that boils down to—literally—is that the surface of HD 149026 b is an impressive 2,300 Kelvin. That’s 3,680.33 degrees Fahrenheit. It only takes 2,797 degrees to melt iron; you do the math.
So, since the planet’s staggering heat and density (probably up to 10 times Earth gravity) means your chances of survival are pretty nil, the best suggestion we’ve got for you as you plummet toward the surface is to start taking bets on what’s going to kill you first: the impact or HD 149026b’s simmering atmospheric bouillabaisse.
After all, you might as well make a few bucks before you go.
The chances of you ever having to make an emergency landing on this tongue-twisting celestial body are, thankfully, pretty miniscule. OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb is a whopping 20,000 light-years from Earth, circling a likely red dwarf star near the center of the Milky Way at an orbit a little wider than that of Mars.
Being so far from such a relatively small, cool star means OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb (we recommend “Blig” for short) is chillier than a lot of other extrasolar planets. And when we say chilly, we mean average atmospheric temperatures close to 50 Kelvin- a crisp -400 degrees Fahrenheit. So remember to bring ski gloves, ‘cause setting up camp is going to be a little tricky if your fingers start falling off from frostbite. Good news, though, for all you Polar Bear Clubbers out there: if you ever dreamed of sliding across a glacier of frozen methane, have we got the ice shelf for you!
On the off chance that you are stranded on OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, you do have one thing going for you: this planet is under quite a bit of observation. Probing Lensing Anomalies NETwork/Robotic Telescope Network (PLANET/Robonet), Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE), and Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA) are credited with joint discovery of the planet and may still have their monitors set on the place, which means there’s a reasonable chance at least one of them might pick you up on their scopes. If they do, hopefully you’ll be waving for help and not mooning the camera.
Course, your biggest problem now isn’t some space geek’s snapshot of your bare ass. It’s how to kill time for the next 20,000 years while you wait for that rescue team to show up.
Anybody bring the Jenga?
Let’s say your expedition is particularly rickety, and you don’t even make it out of the solar system before something short-circuits. Don’t worry! With a quick course correction you can simply touch down on Venus for emergency repairs.
That’s assuming you can land, of course. Venus is surrounded by dense clouds of sulfuric acid that long prevented astronomers from getting a decent read on the inner atmosphere. In fact, when Project Magellan arrived in 1990, it had to take pictures via bursts of microwave energy, because the opacity of the upper atmosphere precluded standard optical equipment. Let’s hope your navigator is on the ball.
If you manage to survive your acid bath entry and actually land on Venus’ inviting surface of volcanic rock, you get to head out for repairs in an atmosphere largely made up of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide. And if you’re planning on using any implements, watch out for those spectacular lightning storms. Or, at least don’t be surprised when your new ‘do’s a perm.
But the best part about Venus is, with an atmospheric pressure 92 times that of Earth, walking around is going to feel like you’re taking a stroll a kilometer under water. (You do remember your astronaut SCUBA training, right?) Even with a re-breather, though, you’re still not going to get far before the winds knock you over. Down on the planet’s surface, the wind isn’t particularly fast, but with that kind of density it doesn’t have to be, and what would be a pleasant spring breeze on Earth, on Venus feels like getting hit with a sackful of pudding. (You do remember your astronaut “getting hit with a sackful of pudding” training, right?)
For a planet so close in core composition to the Earth, and with tantalizing evidence of the prior presence of water, Venus is remarkably inhospitable. Which is surprising coming from such an unassuming planet orbiting so close to home.
But you know what they say: it’s always the quiet ones who break your heart.
4. 51 Pegasi b
51 Pegasi b, nicknamed Bellerophon because of its star’s location in Pegasus, was one of the first extrasolar planets to be discovered.
Good news for you, though, is that this guy’s only 50 light-years from Earth.
Of course, you’re still dealing with a gas giant, which means it may have a rocky crust stable enough to land on, but you’re not going to make it that far; the roiling sodium and silicate clouds that most likely form this planet’s atmosphere are hot and corrosive enough to vaporize magnesium. And that’s assuming that its star, 51 Pegasi, doesn’t react with b and erupt in a superflare intense enough to melt a planet…not to mention you.
Plus, not to put a crimp on your fix-it plans or anything, but Bellerophon is tidally locked to 51 Pegasi, which means that this planet doesn’t spin on an axis. Instead, it circles the star like a ball on a string, so depending on where you land, you’re either in for one scorching day or one hell of a long night.
And you thought Alaska had it bad.
5. Gliese 581 g
Your mission has gone as planned for 20 light-years, taking you into the Libra constellation and its star Gliese 581. Then, disaster strikes. But with any luck, you’ll arrive at the right time of year to touch down on Gliese 581 g.
Gliese 581 g, classified as a super-earth, occupies the bolometric-luminosity sweet spot known as the habitable zone. For the layperson, astronomers have adorably nicknamed it “The Goldilocks Zone.” (Awwww!)
Though Gliese 581 g circles its star every 37 days, making its orbit even shorter than Mercury’s, Gliese 581 is a red dwarf with less than 2% of the sun’s light and heat, making the closer orbit ideal for the support of life. Gliese 581 g is tidally locked to its star, which means there’s none of earth’s orbital rotation – you’re looking at some seriously sweltering summer days – but there’s sufficient atmosphere to support life, and the temperature in the twilight region, called “the terminator,” should be just about right for life.
And the good news doesn’t stop there. Conditions here will probably be shockingly similar to those on Earth, both in atmosphere, geological makeup, and temperature: the terminator regions are estimated to average between -31 to 10 degrees Celsius, which, while not bikini weather, is hardly fatal.
So, on paper, Gliese 581 g sounds like an ideal planet on which to be stranded, and as far as atmosphere and terrain go, it’s actually pretty safe. That is, of course, until you take into account the invisible variant that makes this situation so unflaggingly scary: the extremely limited company you’ll be stuck with. In other words, hell isn’t a catastrophic crash or a sulfuric atmosphere. It isn’t even a bone-chilling ice planet. Hell, in this universe, is the rest of your life spent with the same 5 annoying shipmates.
So when you make that first brave step out of the wreckage, take a good look around at your fellow adventurers. Sure, they look harmless now, but according to well-researched sci-fi statistics, you’ve got two days, max, before those bodies turning up in the cargo hold prove that one among you is a preternaturally calm, stone-cold killer. (If you’re in a movie, you only get forty to ninety minutes. Think fast!)
On the other hand, if everybody else looks stable, then the one who’s cracked is probably you. Make the most of it! Polish a murder implement, hum off-key, and prepare to chew some of that inhospitable extraterrestrial scenery.
It’s odd to think that with all the earthquakes, twisters, and franchise reboots here on Earth, it’s still the safest planet to call home, but the extrasolar evidence doesn’t lie. So if a cocky, girdled spaceship captain ever invites you to partake in a fantastic voyage of adventure to faraway stars—decline. Not even an eternal life in syndication is worth the silicate storms, ice giants, and massive clouds of acid you now know you’re going to encounter.
And in the future, if you ever feel yourself regretting all the wonders you might have missed on a planet far, far away, just slap yourself with a sackful of pudding.
That ought to fix it.
For More Information on Planets That Will Kill You Dead:
- The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia
- Exoplanets: Database and Sky Map
- NASA information page on Venus
- Extrasolar Visions
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