Otherworldly Destinations Here on Earth
These are the six spots to visit if you wish you could actually go to space.
Elon Musk's rocket company, SpaceX, wants to ferry people to Mars by the hundreds, with the first humans landing on the red planet around 2025. President Barack Obama published an op-ed in October 2016 recommitting to his goal to send humans to Mars by the 2030s.
It’s enough to give Earthlings a bad case of interplanetary wanderlust, but you can’t book your tickets just yet. For budding space tourists eager for a celestial-body experience, here are some terrestrial destinations with distinctively off-planet flavor.
The red desert landscape of southern Utah mimics the isolation, geology, and palette of our planetary neighbor. A hike through this region will reveal deep red canyons, buttes, and pinnacles. Ignore the succulents and you can imagine yourself trekking in the Valles Marineris, Mars’s version of the Grand Canyon. Rainbow Bridge National Monument, in this part of the state, is a spectacular, 290-foot-tall natural arch made of red-brown Kayenta sandstone. The region is also home to the Mars Desert Research Station, a two-story stand-in for a potential Martian research station, complete with simulated air locks. More than a thousand people have participated in two-to-three-week missions at the station since 2001. The Mars Society, which advocates for sending humans to Mars as soon as possible, is actively recruiting volunteers for future missions. (Watch Crew 138 of the Mars Society prepare for a mission to the red planet at the Mars Desert Research Station.)
If humans ever do visit Venus, they may never be able to land on its volcanic surface, shrouded in clouds that rain sulfuric acid and bake the crust to 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius). Instead, visitors might one day float above the surface in the solar-powered cloud cities NASA has envisioned for the hypothetical High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) mission. At that higher altitude, temperatures and other conditions would be less hostile to visitors from our blue marble. For the sensation of a vacation to Venus, check out the mass ascension at Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, where more than 500 balloons launch in a rapid-fire spectacle. This premier ballooning event lasts for nine days in October and includes evening events beneath tethered balloons that glow like vibrant lanterns.
Buzz Aldrin, an astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission that put men on the lunar surface for the first time, wrote that “of all the places on Earth where we trained, the Big Island most felt like the moon.” The approximately 11,000-foot-high site on the slopes of Mauna Kea where Aldrin and other astronauts practiced their moon walks back in the 1960s has earned the nickname “Apollo Valley.” Geologists put the astronauts through a crash course on the volcanic formations, including flyovers and ground visits to lava tubes, undulating pahoehoe lava flows, and fiberglass-like formations known as Pele’s hair. You could say that Mauna Kea, the tallest of Hawaii’s volcanoes, had the right tuff. It’s still putting lunar rovers to the test and offering important astronomical observations thanks to the complex of world-class observatories clustered at its peak. During the day, experienced hikers can climb to the summit on an eight-hour round-trip trek. If the weather is good, you have a four-wheel drive, and you can handle the altitude gain, you can also head from the visitors center, which is open nightly, to the volcano’s summit to watch the sunset and gaze at the stars, and of course, the moon.
One of the most heavily cratered objects in our solar system is Jupiter’s moon Callisto, discovered by Galileo in the 17th century. Valhalla, a crater on the moon’s surface named for the home of fallen warriors in Norse mythology, is the largest at roughly 2,500 miles in diameter. Unlike Callisto, Earth is shielded from space rocks by its atmosphere, but has nonetheless had its share of impacts. If you want the feeling of standing inside the rim of Valhalla, you can visit one of the 190 confirmed craters on our planet created by meteorite impacts. The largest is Vredefort crater, a rumpled ring of mountains in South Africa some one hundred miles across—so large it may not even feel like you’re inside one of Earth’s biggest scars. You can also check out the smaller, younger, and more intact Pingualuit crater, which rises from the tundra in northern Quebec. An early prospector mistakenly believed that the almost perfectly round feature was a kimberlite tube where he might find diamonds. Those who trek out to Pingualuit today will instead find the Crystal Eye of Nunavik, a deep freshwater lake filled with extraordinarily clear water.
The Auroras of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The sun ejects particles during solar storms that bombard our entire solar system, but only planets with magnetic fields and an atmosphere turn those particles into amazing light shows. Scientists have seen this phenomenon around the poles of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. On Earth, you can view these storms near our North and South Poles—in the north as the aurora borealis, or northern lights, and in the south as the aurora australis. These dancing ribbons in the sky take on green, blue, red, or purple shades and occur when the particles interact with our atmosphere’s gases. Getting a view of this phenomenon takes some planning and a bit of good luck. Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland are situated in far northern latitudes, so they make for good viewing locations. You’ll need a dark sky, so it’s best to go between September and April when the nights are long. Good weather and a new moon will also increase visibility. After a solar storm, the lights get even more intense, but there’s no way to predict such events in advance. The Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska, keeps an eye on the current state of the aurora, and offers a very near-term aurora forecast—a glimpse of what might be coming in the next hour.
In 2011, the Cassini probe spotted jets of water vapor and ice spewing from the south pole of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. This discovery hinted at a reservoir of water below its frozen surface. When researchers analyzed the moon’s tiny wobble, their calculations pointed to something even more amazing—a global ocean between the icy crust and its rocky core. What would it be like to swim through this watery shell? Diving below icebergs off the coast of Greenland might give you a sense of the Enceladus experience. The dimpled textures of the icebergs’ undersides are constantly melting and morphing, so no two dives are the same. However, those changes can mean real danger for divers when ice falls into the frigid waters. For a more accessible place to get your under-ice flippers wet, consider the SCUBA training site at Morrison’s Quarry in Canada.