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Alien Planets on Earth -1

Central Iceland looks like Jupiter's Ganymede.

All Around the World with the Most Travelled Indian

By Nitin Gairola

Just like millions around the world, as a kid I was fascinated by the universe, space and our solar system with its various planets and their moons (satellites). Since I was an encyclopedia and science geek from the age of just 6, I used to dream of landing in strange worlds. But like millions, my dreams started evaporating one by one as I grew up and started facing the harsh realities of the world. Till the age of 27 I had forgotten about this part of me and it was at that age that I picked up international travel to start figuring out what this world was all about. Initially my travels were just for the fascination of seeing new places, and then it became increasingly to learn about the history and culture of the destinations, till I found my true passion for the natural world i.e. the world of planetary science and geography. Believe me, like all evolutions, this personal evolution took a lot of time to come.

Red hot surface volcano similar to Jupiter’s Io.

As the regular readers of my column would know, my natural world turned into an obsession to be the first Asian and Indian to see all deserts, forests, grasslands and tundra regions of Earth i.e. the living landscapes or biomes. In doing so, I ended up seeing some very alien worlds especially in the near lifeless deserts, ice and volcanic regions of our planet. I didn’t realize it then, but for me these barren and bleak locations were my unexamined way of seeing exo-worlds, as I was transported to strange landscapes right here on Planet Earth itself.

Volcanic colours in Wai-o-Tapu similar to Venus.

Then I started to map places on Earth to the terrains of planets and moons in our solar system, those that mankind has observed through unmanned probes. To give you a solar system 101 introductory class, our Sun or the star at the center does nuclear fusion when (due to immense gravitational pressure) 2 hydrogen atoms fuse to form 1 helium atom and this process releases a massive amount of solar or heat energy. This energy reaches the planets and their distance from the star (amongst other factors) determines the respective climates and eventually life in each of these planetary bodies. To give you a count of such objects in the solar system, we have the 9 ‘observed’ planets that revolve around the Sun and their moons revolve around the planets. The current count of discovered moons is a staggering 293 although only 5 are considered likely candidates for hosting simple microbial life.

UFO shaped Lenticular Clouds over Lunar Arctic.

As far as their position in the solar system is concerned, we have the 4 small rocky planets that are closest to our star, starting with the super-hot and small Mercury, the volcanic Venus, our own blue-green Earth (149.9 million kilometers away from Sun) and finally Mars, the planet that scientists, citizens and Hollywood has been fascinated with in their ‘quest for alien life’ (alien life means different things to different people).

Kutch’s yellow acid pools are a bit like on Titan.

After these first 4, come the next 4 outer gas giants, starting with the largest planet, Jupiter, followed by the 2nd largest and the most stunning, Saturn (with its dramatic rings) and then we have Uranus and Neptune. And far, far away there is the little ice world of Pluto, which until recently wasn’t even given the status of a planet, but just another object in the outer Kuiper Belt (which is a ring of debris that could have formed into planets had the gravitational pull of the Sun been strong enough that far to retain these fragments tightly in orbit). But Pluto is now indeed considered to be the 9th and last planet, so far.

Atacama is Mars…period.

As scientists are learning, it’s actually the moons of these planets, besides Mars and Venus, which have the highest chance of containing life in them and definitely not the gas giants or the extreme Mercury. In the case of Mercury, because it rotates extremely slowly and doesn’t have much of an atmosphere to retain heat, its temperatures swing wildly, from plus 427 degree centigrade during day to minus 173 centigrade at night. So there is not much scope for life on this dark gray ball. In particular, many of the amazing moons of Jupiter and Saturn are candidates for ‘alien life’ (think microbial again, not ‘little green men’ of Hollywood), along with 1 moon of Neptune called Triton, as it is a rare geologically active moon despite being that far away from the Sun. It has what is called cryo-volcanism i.e. volcanoes that release ice crystals instead of molten lava, as is the case with normal volcanism.

Greenland’s ice surface is like Jupiter’s Europa.

These planets and moons with likelihood of life also have the most dynamic and dramatic weather systems and topographies and I can assure you – you can find a lot of similar looking landscapes in some remote and barren geographic outposts of Earth. As I said, this fits very well with my passion of seeing all deserts on Earth since what defines a desert is its lack of precipitation or rainfall and it is what makes it less full of life. I refrain from using the words ‘devoid of life’ since there is almost no place on Earth where life doesn’t find a way to adapt, survive and even thrive. But the one defining feature of all planets and their moons is that they are devoid of life as far as we know (so far). Hence our extreme deserts and volcanoes on Earth are really very similar to the worlds out there.

Hollywood’s Martian was filmed in Wadi Rumm.

Earth has so many such wonders that in some lands you actually wonder if you walked through a wormhole in space and reached another dimension far away, into an alien planet. Within our Earth, there are ice landscapes in the Arctic and Antarctic that resemble the smooth and icy Europa (a moon of Jupiter) or Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) both of which also have geysers that gush out water vapour through cracks in their icy surfaces.

Altiplano geysers like those on Saturn’s Enceladus.

These 2 are the top contenders for potential life along with Mars, the rocky red deserts of which look remarkably similar to Wadi Rumm in Jordan or the Atacama in South America. Then there are the volcanic lands in New Zealand, Hawaii, Ethiopia, Vanuatu, Congo, etc., that are belching out myriad super-heated hues like those on the surface of Venus or Io (a volcanic moon of Jupiter). Besides Earth has orange-yellow acid lakes as those found on Titan (Saturn’s moon) and rocky (not smooth) ice surfaces as on Callisto (another of Jupiter’s moon which is a candidate for life as well).

Death Valley is a haunting vision of Mars.

For experiencing an object closer to our Earth, we have parts where you feel like Neil Armstrong who has just landed on the lunar surface, such as in the ‘Valley of the Moon’ in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile or some barren bone-dry parts of the Arctic. Many of these strange worlds have been part of popular science and science-fiction Hollywood movies such as The Martian, Interstellar, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, amongst others.

Antarctic ice on the rocks is Jupiter’s Callisto.

Through these photographs I have tried to capture such strange parts of our world and hopefully they will capture your imagination as well and be a portal to a different dimension, if only for a while. As with any Earth-bound traveller and especially one who is an earth science and astronomy enthusiast, this is my own way to put my foot on an alien planet (and hopefully not in my mouth).

(Nitin Gairola is from Dehradun and has travelled the natural world more than almost any Indian ever. He has set world travel records certified by India Book of Records, has written for Lonely Planet, and holds National Geographic conservation certifications. He is also a senior corporate executive in an MNC and, in his early days, used to be a published poet as well. More than anything else, he loves his Himalayan home.)