Introducing Real-life Sci-fi Worlds

A desert world with two suns in the sky.  The jungle-covered moon of a gas giant planet.  A planet completely enveloped in ice.  A stormy ocean-covered world.  A planet infested with bubbling lava fields.

Pandora orbiting its gas giant host.  Pandora is supposedly located in the Alpha Centauri system.  Credit: Avatar/James Cameron.
Pandora from the movie Avatar, a jungle moon orbiting a Jupiter-like gas giant planet. Pandora is supposedly located in the Alpha Centauri system. Credit: Avatar/James Cameron.

These are the settings for science fiction stories. They paint pictures of other worlds.  Where life can exist but things are different.  Some of them have entered our cultural consciousness.  You may recognize them by name: Tatooine, Pandora, Arrakis.

These worlds open up our imaginations.  They make us wonder about life elsewhere.  They also get a lot of kids interested in science (like me).  But do worlds like these really exist?  What would it be like to live there?  Do the movies and books get them right?  This is the subject of a new planetplanet theme called Real-life Sci-fi Worlds.

Here is the plan.  I will take a careful look at different possible habitats for life.  Some will be familiar worlds similar to ones you have seen before in well-known movies or books.  Some will be very different and (hopefully) unexpected. Sometimes the interesting part will be the system in which a given planet is found (see, for example, my ultimate Solar System). Sometimes a planet’s history will play the key role in determining its potential for life. Sometimes a specific physical effect — like tides or a planet’s orbit — will be extra-important.

For each Real-life sci-fi World, I will take a look at the:

  1. Setting.  What kind of planet?  Orbiting what type of star?  In what kind of planetary system?  What processes affect this world’s ability to host life?
  2. Habitats.  At what locations on this world could life exist and perhaps flourish?  How do they compare with Earth?
  3. Context.  How common are worlds like this?  Are there any examples among the known extra-solar planets?  Are special conditions required to create a setting like this one?
  4. Story.  What unique aspect of this world might make an interesting sci-fi story?  This is where I get to have fun and make things up.  Usually just an outline, nothing too complicated.

Real-life Sci-fi worlds will be scientifically accurate.  It will be inspired by our current understanding of how planets form and evolve (that is my day job, after all).  Sometimes I’ll go nuts and speculate. But I will remain bounded by science.

And science can tell us a lot!  Planets with twin suns (like Tatooine) have been discovered.  Large rocky planets on hot orbits very close to their stars have also been found (and could be similar to Arrakis).  Moons orbiting planets around other stars (like Pandora) are a hot topic of research and are being looked for as we speak (with one possible detection).  Finally, in the Star Trek universe, planet Vulcan — Spock’s home world — is located in orbit around the real star 40 Eridani A, which is visible in the night sky.  The star is also a member of a triple star system (3 stars orbiting each other)!  Real planets have even been found in 4-star systems!

OK, here we go!  This week (Oct 6-10) I will post a new Real-life sci-fi world each day.  

Below is a list of the Real-life Sci-Fi worlds we’ve looked at so far.  I’ll keep it up to date as I write more posts.

Real-life Sci-Fi Worlds

  1. The Eccentric Earth
  2. The Hot Eyeball planet
  3. The oscillating Earth
  4. Earth around a brown dwarf
  5. Arrakis, a Dune planet
  6. Pandora, the large moon of a gas giant planet
  7. Eyeball worlds, both icy and hot (direct link to Nautilus article here)
  8. Free-floating Earths (based on this article)
  9. An Earth with 5 Suns (see also the followups here and here)
  10. The Ultimate Trojan 2-star system
  11. Asimov’s Kalgash, a planet in permanent daytime: both the book version and a setup that actually works
  12. The million-Earth Solar System

Finally, I will confess that although I am a big fan of some sci-fi (in particular, anything written by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov) I am no expert.  I am impressed with the level of detail and accuracy found on some sci-fi websites (like the World Builder’s Bookshelf).   I’m sure that there are lot of ideas out there that I am not aware of.  If any of the ideas that I present have been thought of before I would love to hear about it in the comments.


13 thoughts on “Introducing Real-life Sci-fi Worlds

  1. Gentlebeing;

    I wonder, what would a hypothetical (fictional) system that would work for Altair IV from FORBIDDEN PLANET (MGM 1956) look like? Please email me when there a response (if any) so I may read it.

    Thank You.

  2. How about looking at the dynamics of Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta, as featured in When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide? I never bought what they said about how Alpha’s collision with Earth slowed it down enough to let Beta escape being a moon of Alpha, yet Alpha (despite making a single 1-yr loop around the sun), still escaped the solar system entirely without capture. Even when I was 12 that didn’t ring true.

    So why not have a go at that pair? Regardless of the celestial mechanics, that pair was far better than all that crap I was assigned to read in 5th and 6th grade.

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