NASA created a buzz in February with news that its Spitzer Space Telescope had made a remarkable discovery — a star system 40 light-years away featuring seven Earth-size planets. And three of those planets are in the habitable zone, where life as we know it is possible. NASA also released an amazing artist’s concept of what one of those planets, TRAPPIST-1f, might look like (see No. 10 below). NASA and the European Space Agency often use artists to help illustrate concepts in news stories; these artists must use their scientific background, input from colleagues — and a little imagination — to show us how extraterrestrial worlds might appear.
10. Brave New World
This is a striking image of newly discovered exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f, with the huge sun and neighboring planet clearly visible in the night sky. According to NASA, all seven planets are close to the star TRAPPIST-1 — they’re actually closer than Mercury is to our Sun — but since the star is an ultra-cool dwarf, life is possible on at least three of the planets. So is water, as the illustration shows. Further studies could help confirm the presence of water.
9. Alien Asteroid Belt
This is how the night sky might appear on a planet with an asteroid belt 25 times more massive than the one in our solar system. Scientists discovered such a solar system around the star HD 69830, with a dust cloud believed to have been caused by a large mass of asteroids colliding. You can actually see the dust from our own solar system’s asteroid belt; in dark skies just before sunrise or after sunset, the dim band stretches up above the horizon, and is often referred to as “false dawn.”
8. Headed For Europa
That’s what our Sun would look like from the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, some 484 million miles away from the Sun. Europa is considered one of the most likely spots for life to exist elsewhere in the solar system; a probe set to launch around 2022 will search for life.
7. ‘Super Earth’
In 2015, scientists announced they had found a “super Earth,” Kepler 452-b, a world 60 percent more massive than Earth in a 385-day orbit around a Sun-like star. Water is likely to be present.
6. Earth Eclipse
This is what a lunar eclipse might look like from the surface of the Moon. The lunar surface appears red because the scant sunlight has refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere. Noted space artist Lucien Rudaux created many notable space-themed paintings in the early 20th century.
5. Next-Door Neighbor
Discovered in 2016, Proxima b orbits the red-dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system. This is what the surface might look like, although it’s in a habitable zone and might contain water. That’s the double star Alpha Centauri AB to the upper right.
4. Crescent Pluto
We tend to think of Pluto as a tiny orb that got unceremoniously demoted from planet status a few years ago because it was too small. But if you were standing on one of Pluto’s moons, the dwarf planet would loom large. That’s Pluto’s moon Charon to the upper right of Pluto in the image.
3. Triple Star
As astronomers identify more and more exoplanets — almost 3,500 exoplanets had been confirmed as of April 2017— they’ll find more planets in binary, or two-star systems. But in July 2016, University of Arizona scientists announced a surprising find: exoplanet HD 131399Ab, which is located in a three-star system. Some 340 light-years distant, the planet has constant daylight during part of the year, and a triple sunrise, triple sunset the rest of the year.
2. Dust in the (Solar) Wind
The surreal rings around star Beta Pictoris (63 light-years from Earth) are comprised of dust resulting from the collisions of thousands of icy, comet-like bodies. Scientists believe the conditions in this star system closely match those in our early solar system.
1. Saturn Rising
This classic image, published in Life Magazine in 1944, shows what the surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan, might look like. Artist Chesley Bonestell helped pioneer the field of space art.