Dante's Cosmic Inferno: 9 Planets That Could Be Hell

Wednesday, 11 July 2018 - 8:57AM
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Wednesday, 11 July 2018 - 8:57AM
Dante's Cosmic Inferno: 9 Planets That Could Be Hell
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Image Credit: NASA/Public Domain
In Dante's Inferno – the first part of The Divine Comedy – the poet describes Hell as a series of nine concentric circles, each representing an order of wickedness greater than the one that preceded it until finally arriving at the center of the Earth, where Satan is imprisoned. One might imagine his depiction of Hell as something like an infernal, subterranean solar system with locked Hellish loops acting as parallel universes of sin under the relentless pressure of poetic justice revolving around the embodiment of evil. As one might expect, the Inferno is filled with images of fire – the classical elemental symbol long associated with divine wrath and punishment – with unsettling and supernatural, near-animistic qualities. In Canto XII, for example, those who've committed acts of violence are condemned to eternal immersion in the river Phlegethon, described by Dante as consisting of boiling blood, but originally imagined by the Greeks as a river of fire: the name itself means "flaming." His other Hells are no less unpleasant.

Had Dante been allowed access to, say, radio telescopes and modern technology, he might well have imagined justice being meted out to souls trapped on Hellish exoplanets: intemperate places – some worlds of fire, others of ice – where not even the faintest idea of life can persist amidst cosmic severity. Here are our picks for the known universe's most Hellish planets.

Circle 1 (Limbo): 2MASS J2126-8140

Astronomers once believed that 2MASS J2126-8140 was an "orphan" planet: a cosmic body without a star or sun to orbit. As it turns out, it does have a star – the red dwarf TYC 9486-927-1 – that happens to be 621,000,000,000 miles away. That distance means that the planet has the longest and widest known orbit in the universe: its year lasts over 900,000 Earth years. In addition to its seemingly-eternal year, it also boasts a surface temperature of 2780° F (1530° C). What better place for Dante to imagine Limbo than a planet that cannot even see its sun?

Circle 2 (Lust): Neptune

In Canto IV and Canto V, Dante describes the second circle of Hell as a "climate ever vex'd with storms" and a place "where no light shines." It is in this circle that "he witnesses the punishment of carnal sinners, who are tossed about ceaselessly in the dark air by the most furious winds." He may very well have been describing the ice giant Neptune, which, at 30 times as far from our sun as Earth, is the most distant planet in our solar system. Besides its distance – NASA notes that it is the only planet in our solar system not visible to the naked eye – Neptune has some curious features, namely severe storms and weather. It is the solar system's windiest planet, with clouds of methane being blasted through its atmosphere and frozen surface at speeds exceeding 1000 miles per hour. In addition to being cold – its average temperature is -353° F (-214° C) – it's also truly a place "where no light shines," receiving a thousand times less solar light than we do. This is a painful irony, as the atmospheric pressure of Neptune is powerful enough to crystallize carbon, creating diamond rain. Diamonds that cannot be seen in storms guaranteed to chill even the hottest blood: Neptune is the perfect home for Dante's brand of ironic justice.

Circle 3 (Gluttony): OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb

13,000 light years away is OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb, an "iceball" planet with approximately the same mass as Earth that NASA scientists have nicknamed "Hoth," after the barren planet that serves as home to Wampas and Tauntauns in The Empire Strikes Back. That, however, is where our similarities end, for OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb is truly a place of darkness and desolation: the perfect location for the gluttonous to "lie in the mire, under a continual and heavy storm of hail, snow, and discolored water" as in Canto VIIt's unclear whether or not the iceball has any surface water: if it does, it is as surely frozen as the consciences of the gluttons who see no further than the satisfaction of their base appetites. 

Circle 4 (Greed): Pluto

In Canto VII, the fourth circle of Hell is reserved for the gluttonous who, guarded by Plutus – in classical mythology, a representation of both wealth (where we get the word "plutocracy") and death – fight each other while bogged down with the weight of their greed. It seems appropriate to assign them to the planet – ok, minor planet – named for the Dark God, although they'd need a lot of extra weight: Pluto's gravity is only 1/12th that of Earth. 

Circle 5 (Wrath): TrES-2b

Just as the wrathful are blinded by their anger in Canto VIII, so would they be blinded by confinement on TrES-2b. That's not because the gas giant is blindingly lit: on the contrary, TrES-2b is the darkest planet ever discovered, reflecting back less than 1% of the sunlight that strikes its surface. Don't be fooled by its darkness, however: the surface temperature hovers around 1800° F, so the perpetually enraged won't be taking any solace in the shade – quite the opposite.

Circle 6 (Heresy): Mercury

Heretics – including the cheese-loving Epicurus – are among those sentenced to eternity in "flaming tombs" in Canto X. Enter Mercury as prime real estate for all of your heretic-punishing and flaming-tomb-developing needs. Mercury is a scarred and cavernous planet, bearing craters, faults, and pockmarks from years of being bombarded with meteoroids and comets. It is the fastest orbiting planet in our solar system with a year lasting just 88 Earth days. It is, however, a slowly rotating planet: one Mercury day takes 59 Earth days. (Try calculating your birthday with that information.) Mercury's surface temperature fluctuates wildly, making it inhospitable to all known life and ranging from –290° F at night to 800° F during the day: perfect for a flaming tomb. 

Circle 7 (Violence): Kepler-70b

Phlegethon – whether composed of boiling blood or liquid fire to torment the violent – has nothing on Kepler 70b, which is hot enough to vaporize anything coming within the reach of its fiery atmosphere. Kepler 70b's surface temperature is even hotter than the Sun's – it's approximately 12,000° F – which we're sure Dante would marvel at... Especially as a place of appropriately searing misery for practitioners of violence.

Circle 8 (Fraud): Venus

The fraudulent and malicious are severely punished in the 8th Circle of Hell by being subjected to a series of concentric trenches – a kind of Hell within Hell. That's more or less an apt description of Venus, which possesses ring-like structures called coronae that measure hundreds of miles across. With clouds of sulfuric acid hovering above a surface as hot as 870° F, the sinister beauty that often appears visible from Earth truly lives up to her ancient name: Lucifer, the light-bearer. The next time you get a scam email or phone call, you may find some comfort in thinking of the hucksters behind these scams being incinerated in a Venusian trench.

Circle 9 (Treachery): OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb

The 9th and last circle of Hell, described in Canto XXXII, is not a place of fire at all, but rather a frozen wasteland. OGLE-2005-BLG-390lb is a Super-Earth 20,000 light years away, close to the center of the Milky Way and located in the constellation Sagittarius. Like its similarly-named cousin OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb, it has also earned the nickname "Hoth" due to the fact that it is one of the coldest – if not the coldest – planets ever detected. With a surface temperature of –370° F, any gases or liquids would be frozen solid. Despite this, at the time of its discovery in 2005 it was described by the ESO as "the most Earth-like planet we know of so far." If that is indeed the case, then it would make a perfect home for those Dante deemed the lowest of the low: the treacherous.
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