Is Pandora in 'Avatar' a real place?

Pandora and its resident Na'vi return to the silver screen in 20th Century Studios' 'Avatar: The Way of Water.' Photo via cinesthetic

The world of “Avatar,” that is, the fictional exomoon of Pandora, underpins why we do what we do here. When the original 2009 movie came out, moviegoers reported feeling depressed, even suicidal, at the thought that Pandora is “intangible." Nothing on earth could possibly compare to its beauty.

Yet the existence of places like Pandora is not entirely implausible—humankind just hasn’t built the means to get there. There are more stars than there are grains of sand here. Simple laws of probability would tell us that there could be intelligent life not of this earth.

Director James Cameron is right to center Pandora and its mother planet, the gas giant Polyphemus, in a very real place: Alpha Centauri. When Homo sapiens finally become interstellar spacefarers, the star system would most likely be the first stopover since it's immediately neighboring ours. 

In the movie, Pandora orbits Polyphemus, which in turn orbits the star Alpha Centauri A. The gag? Alpha Centauri A doesn't have a planet in real life. Nor does its sister star Alpha Centauri B. But Proxima, the third star in the Alpha Centauri system, does have two exoplanets: Proxima Centauri b and Proxima Centauri d.

Somewhere closer to home, Saturn has a satellite called Pandora. But it's, no pun intended, a very saturnine piece of cosmic rock, an icy, dark world diametrically opposite the warm, luminescent Hollywood Pandora.

Much like its fictional namesake (above), the desolate moon Pandora (below as seen from NASA's Cassini spacecraft) orbits a gas giant

The make-believe Pandora lifts inspiration from attractions on earth, such as the pillar-like mountains of the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China, the rainforests of Kauai in Hawaii, and bioluminiscent organisms from Jamaica to New Zealand, to name a few. 

Cameron, of course, is still thinking of planetary beauty in earthly terms. As striking as the imagery on "Avatar" is, filmmakers can only imagine what kind of lifeforms await earthlings out there.


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