Special Report

What Will Extraterrestrial Life Look Like?

Illustrator David Aguilar melds art and science to imagine how alien creatures might adapt to their environments

It is time that we drop Hollywood’s humanoid view of extraterrestrials. In reality, David Aguilar says, “We are going to find bizarre adaptations.” (David Aguilar)

Within the next 20 years, human beings could discover life on other planets.

It was this startling prediction—and the subsequent realization that kids sitting in elementary school classrooms today would be the first generation to know where exactly these extraterrestrials live—that stoked David Aguilar’s imagination.

In his latest children’s book, Alien Worlds, Aguilar presents eight worlds, all modeled after Earth-like planets and moons that actually exist in the Milky Way galaxy. Aguilar projects different temperature, gravity, light and water conditions onto these planets—all educated inferences based on the many stages Earth has gone through in its history. In “Ocean World,” for example, the planet’s surface is predominantly water, much like Earth was 450 million years ago, whereas the desert-like “Dying World,” with temperatures ranging from 85 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, is a glimpse at what Earth could be like about one and a half billion years from now.

Then, Aguilar addresses the bigger question: what will the inhabitants of these worlds look like?

“The popular image is that they look like us. They look like humans: two arms, two legs, a nose, two eyes, two ears and something is just slightly different. They’ve got bumps on their nose or pointy ears or purple colored skin, and so consequently they are alien,” says Aguilar, the director of public affairs and science information at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He first got into children’s literature with his 2007 book Planets, Stars and Galaxies. “Sitting on my shelf next to my computer is an array of dog-eared books, that I had as a kid on space, robots and rockets submarines—nostalgic reminders of the exciting ideas that whisked my mind away to other places and other possibilities,” he says. “I want to open young minds out there to the wonders, beauty and sheer awesomeness of their universe.”

But, biologists might say that it is time that we drop Hollywood’s humanoid view of extraterrestrials. In reality, Aguilar says, “We are going to find bizarre adaptations.”

To illustrate Alien Worlds, Aguilar created models of marvelously imaginative aliens out of wood, plastic and clay. He photographed these models, and, then, in Photoshop, added colors, textures and other charismatic features.

Meet his cast of characters:


(David Aguilar)

In Aguilar’s fictional universe, a moon dubbed Chaos orbits Wakanda, a giant ice planet. The gravitational force between the two celestial bodies creates huge ocean tides on the moon. We’re talking mighty waves measuring more than 60 feet tall!

So, how does a marine creature protect itself—especially if, like a turtle, it needs to come ashore to lay its eggs?

“I thought of the airbags in a car,” says Aguilar. His beachrollers—crustacean-like critters—simply inflate an airbag around themselves. “Coming down those big waves, they roll right up to the beach, take care of whatever they are going to do, lay their eggs or reproduce, and then crawl back into the water and swim out.”


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