Anyone who has studied the images sent back by the space probes and rovers dotted throughout the solar system has no doubt wondered what it would be like to stand on another world. While tourism to other planets is still some distance off, Earth has its own fair share of alien landscapes. Here are 10 that you could go and see right now.
1. Wadi Rum, Jordan
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this landscape was captured by a Mars rover, with its bright orange sands and towering cliffs. Wadi Rum (Arabic for ‘Sand Valley’) in Jordan looks so much like the surface of the Red Planet that it has been used as a shooting location for movies including The Martian and Rogue One.
2. Marble Caves, Patagonia
Situated on General Carrera Lake, Chile, the Marble Caves (Cuevas de Mármol) are the product of more than 6,000 years of wave erosion. During the spring, shallower waters reflect turquoise hues, while in the summer, water levels rise to produce a deeper cerulean blue. The caves are only accessible by boat.
3. Deep sea brine pools
A lake within an ocean is one way to describe these brine pools that dot the sea floor. The pools are formed by the accumulation of extremely concentrated brine, with a salt content three eight to times higher than that of the surrounding water. The brine is heavier than the surrounding solution and so sinks to the bottom, forming a lake complete with shoreline and waves. Hardy extremophile bacteria live along the shore, feeding on methane and providing a small ecosystem with energy kilometres from sunlight.
4. White Sands National Monument, USA
Found in New Mexico, United States, is the White Sands National Monument, part of the largest field of gypsum crystals in the world. The calcium-based gypsum is responsible for the bright white colouration of the dunes. Unlike quartz-based sand, gypsum sand can be walked on safely with bare feet as it does not pass on the Sun’s heat as readily.
5. Zhanyge Danxia Geopark, China
With beautiful, surreal-coloured mountains that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dr Seuss book, the Zhanyge Danxia Geopark in north-west China is an artwork 24 million years in the making. Red sandstone is sandwiched between layers of other minerals, creating a massive layer-cake structure. The movement of tectonic plates in combination with erosion then carved out the mesmerising slanted structures visible today.
6. Darvaza crater, Turkmenistan
Aptly nicknamed ‘the door to hell’, this fiery pit in Turkmenistan is the result of a failed Soviet mining expedition. Just as the Soviet engineers realised that the prospective oil field site was in fact a gas pocket, the ground beneath gave way, collapsing into a crater. Fearing the release of toxic gas, the engineers set the escaping fumes alight. They expected the gas to burn off after a few weeks, but it is still going strong more than 45 years later.
7. Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia
More than 3,600 metres above sea level and covering more than 10,500 square kilometres, the Salar De Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia are the world’s largest. When it rains, the flats become an immense mirror stretching to the horizon. Salar De Uyuni is also a major lithium reservoir, containing up to 70% of the world’s known lithium reserves.
8. The Cave of Crystals, Mexico
Buried deep below the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, is the Cave of Crystals, which contain some of the largest naturally occurring crystal formations ever found. Near 100% humidity and temperatures of up to 58 degrees Celsius make the caves a hostile place. Even with proper protective gear, a person can only tolerate around 10 minutes of exposure at a time, which is one reason the caves have barely been explored.
9. Chocolate Hills, Philippines
Resembling giant alien ant hills, the Chocolate Hills in the Bohol province of the Philippines are named for their appearance during the dry season, when the green grass that covers them turns brown. Made out of limestone derived from coral and other fossils, the hills were formed by water erosion as the land was lifted by tectonic movements. Many of the hills have hidden caves and springs within.
10. Red Beach, China
The vivid crimson wetlands of Panjing, China, are better known as the Red Beach. The vibrant colouration comes from a special type of seaweed called Suaeda, which can withstand highly alkaline conditions that would kill other species. The seaweed mimics deciduous trees, gaining their red colour in the autumn to produce an alien landscape that you could be easily tricked into thinking is from another world.
Related reading: Making alien worlds on Earth
Jake Port contributes to the Cosmos explainer series.
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