Freezing Planets Distant From Stars

Freezing planets distant from stars
hide ocean worlds agitating phase
transitions between rock warm interiors
and outer icy shells; Dante’s fog.
With liquid introspection, lifeforms
must emerge to lead layered lives.
Pulled from warm pipes of mineral-rich
vents they reach up and scratch at heaven.
Celestial spheres cold and bright
sound suddenly of insides waiting to gut out,
to glimpse the afterlife: vacuum angels,
later and far fewer, understanding ice
to mean death, watching icy worlds
erupt with gelatinous demonic greeting.

#NaPoWriMo 2017 Day 7


It continues to astonish me that our solar system is full of (probable) oceans of liquid water and not just our one globe-spanning surface deluge. This was simply not a possibility when I was growing up and learning about the planets and their moons. The outer planets were cold, dead, their moons frozen and not active. Active surfaces required the heat of being close to the Sun and rock liquified by radiation and extreme compression. Io, the volcanic moon of Jupiter, was an outlier. Okay, maybe something interesting was happening at Europa, too, but that was it.

Galileo, Cassini-Hugyens, and New Horizons radically changed our understanding about just how active cold can be. We find our outer solar system and its icy bodies to be an exciting realm of surface activity driven by active subsurface mechanisms, leading to evidence for liquid water oceans underneath. Ceres in the Asteroid Belt, the four largest moons of Jupiter, Enceladus and Titan at Saturn, Triton at Neptune, Pluto itself and perhaps even icy bodies beyond are all tantalizing reservoirs, and where there is liquid and the agitating forces that make oceans despite frigid distances from the sun and ice crust surfaces, there is the very real possibility of life, a phenomenon that thrives, as far as we know, at such energetic boundaries here on Earth.

Add to the list similar icy bodies that must abound around other stars and I begin to imagine an extensive shadow universe almost Lovecraftian in how well it has been hidden from our limited perspective. There may be other habitable Earth-like planets in the Goldilocks zone around their stars, but these surface water worlds will always be vastly outnumbered by the hidden ocean worlds. Billions of years of history in agitated soup inside icy bodies far more numerous than what may be rare Earths? Imagine the histories of life that have been locked away under ice in oceans we’re only just beginning to acknowledge exist! I imagine evolution at speed but constrained by almost impenetrable layers of rock below and ice above. How many civilizations on how many icy worlds rose and fell trapped between solid layers without realizing where they were in the scheme of things? How advanced must they become to realize that there is vastness beyond their solid ice heavens? Cities and vehicles, mining and economy, liquid resources, and still in the dark about how thin their realm really is. And give them a crack to the surface, how would it not be an almost insurmountable obstacle, to live under such pressure, with all that thick water pressed between thick rock and thick ice, and then to be introduced to vacuum?

It is much, much more difficult, I think, to start from below. How easy it is for us surface dwellers under domes of open air and thin skies to peer out at the universe. Our advantage is our cosmic view and living adjacent to vacuum, under low enough pressure already that we can relatively easily fashion vessels and suits as life-affirming bubbles of the living conditions we need to survive while we explore. It takes some doing, but our progress seems so much easier compared to what hidden ocean people under great depths between solid barriers must face to even find out they have somewhere to go to poke their limbs and head out, if they can even swim up from depth without their delicate bodies exploding, if they can fashion, under water, vehicles that can swim and vehicles that can drill and then vehicles that can keep them under pressure when they break through the ice to sudden vacuum, lack of pressure, and radiation. I don’t think swimming and drilling and venturing out for such aliens will turn out to be the exact opposite to our diving deep and drilling down and flying up.

But if they overcome such incredible obstacles? Can you imagine our reaction to witnessing such creatures in their advanced suits and vehicles rising up through the thick icy crusts of Europa or Enceladus or Pluto?

Lovecraftian indeed.

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.