Have you ever wondered what it might be like to look at an alien sky? The sky of a planet whose atmosphere has a different chemical composition to that on Earth, resulting in entirely different cloud formations, weather patterns, opacity, refraction, luminosity, color schemes? A planet circling a different sun, perhaps a star at a different stage of evolution from our old yellowish Sol, and whose light spectrum might be shifted to the blue, or to the red? A sun which might be closer, or further away, larger, smaller, hotter, colder than ours?
How would that affect what one would see? And would our Earthling eyes and brains even be able to process the different colour spectrum? Would there be colours we have never seen, or imagined – and would they cause nausea and disorientation, fascination mixed with loathing, like Lovecrafts “Colour from Outer Space”?
The space probes which have been sent out in the last few decades to explore our solar system, the planets in our immediate neighbourhood, have beamed back astonishing images. But it has often been an artist’s task to interpret the scientific data, to visually process the blurry photographic images sent back by the probes, and turn them into images which can give us a visual impression of what those data are telling us. We now have some idea of what the thick methan atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn might look like, and we even have seen actual photographs of sunset on Mars – so the concept of an alien sky is no longer completely left to our imagination!
Letting the imagination roam further afield, we might imagine planets similar to those we have been able to explore, inhabited by civilisations similar to our own – or perhaps by some future version of ourselves. The borders between science fiction and fantasy get blurry sometimes, when we imagine fairy tale cupolas appearing like a mirage on the horizon of some alien desert, or perhaps a library of Human Experience, built from bits and pieces of Old Earth architecture, on some lapislazuli-skied planet circling the Orion nebula: this last is one of my own images, in which I’ve tried to explore the effects a different solar spectrum and atmosphere might have, which is what started me off on this quest to see what other artists have done.
Imagining different colour schemes and atmospheric phenomena to characterize an alien world is one thing, but nothing says “alien sky” more clearly, than some huge planet or moon hovering in the sky. It’s quickly turning into a new visual cliché! There is something fascinating and at the same time unsettling, about the image of a large, strangely patterned celestial body – or several – filling the sky, where we would expect to see our familiar old moon.
Alien skies need not necessarily be located in another solar system. They can also be located in our own future – or imagined past. What would the effect of centuries of industrial pollution be on the Earth’s atmosphere? asks one artist – while another imagines a visitation from a Lovecraftian Elder Being.
Scientific probability is not always what matters. Sometimes we just want to play with the visual possibilities, and throw a cluster of moons in the sky like so many soap bubbles, or juggling balls.
Then on the other hand, perhaps what we might encounter on another planet with different atmospheric conditions, might not be so very different from what we can see on our own, when the weather and the season and the time of day are right.
All images are copyright the respective artist, and may not be reproduced without their permission.