NASA’s Exoplanet Travel Bureau is now open, and while it won’t actually take you on a trip far beyond our solar system, as the name might suggest, it could possibly be the next best thing. It uses virtual reality technology to show people what it might be like on the surface of an alien world.
As explained in a report from Digital Trends, the images NASA uses for this project aren’t actual photos, but rather artist renders based on the Kepler Space Telescope’s exoplanet observations. Thanks to these images, viewers can go on “intergalactic vacations” through the interactive VR experience, with the 360-degree views available on desktop PC, mobile, and virtual reality headsets.
“We live in a universe teeming with exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system. Unfortunately, even the nearest exoplanets are light-years away, so sending spacecraft and humans to these intriguing worlds remains a distant dream,” read a press release from NASA quoted by the Daily Express.
NASA‘s website for the Exoplanet Travel Bureau comes with several options for people planning to “explore the galaxy” in the comfort of their own homes, all accompanied by their own 1950s sci-fi-inspired posters. These include a “planet hop” from the nearly Earth-sized exoplanet TRAPPIST-1e, a chance to “relax” at Kepler-16b, where “your shadow always has company,” and a trip to Kepler-186f, which was often referred to as “Earth’s cousin,” the first confirmed Earth-sized planet to orbit a distant star in its habitable zone. PSO J318.5-22 is described as a planet where the “nightlife never ends,” due to the fact that it floats freely in outer space without a host star to orbit.
All in all, there are six different experiences to choose from, though at the time Digital Trends published its report, there were only three planets available to visit. There is a chance, however, that NASA will be adding more exoplanets to the Travel Bureau website in the near future.
According to a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory blog post from last month, the VR version of Kepler-186f comes with a special feature, as the space agency’s visualization tool allows viewers to see how the sky’s appearance from the planet’s surface changes, depending on whether the planet has an atmosphere or not.
“Because Kepler-186f and the majority of Kepler-discovered planets are so distant, it is currently impossible to detect their atmospheres — if they exist at all — or characterize their atmospheric properties,” explained Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) program scientist Martin Still.