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SYFY WIRE Exoplanets

The Fiery World of Riddick’s Crematoria Might Be Common in the Cosmos

It's easier to find a prison planet than a paradise.

By Cassidy Ward
Vin Diesel in The Chronicles of Riddick

On the run again following the events of Pitch Black, Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) finds himself on the planet Helion Prime in the opening act of The Chronicles of Riddick. That’s where he first encounters the Necromongers, an army of spacefaring conquerors hellbent on converting or killing all of existence.

After narrowly escaping their clutches, Riddick is captured for the bounty on his head (you’ve never met a space pirate more prolific than Riddick) and taken to the prison planet Crematoria. There, the sunlight is so intense that the horizon drags a line of molten rock behind it as the planet turns. Escaping Crematoria means climbing out of the subterranean prison and onto the surface, then racing ahead of the sunrise to get to a ship off planet before being burnt to a cinder.

The alien world of Crematoria is perfect eye candy for a blockbuster space romp, but that doesn’t mean it’s purely a Hollywood invention. In space, deadly hell worlds are a dime a dozen.

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Hellish, Lava-Covered Exoplanets Litter the Cosmos

Crematoria, as described in The Chronicles of Riddick, lies in the appropriately named Igneon system. It’s a hellish world known primarily as the home of the Crematoria Slam Facility, a maximum-security space prison, a cosmic Alcatraz from which it is seemingly impossible to escape.

It orbits close to its star and rotates slowly, once every 52 hours. At any given time, the side of the planet facing the star reaches a sweltering 700 degrees Fahrenheit (370 Celsius) while the night side is 300 below zero (-184 Celsius). If we’re going to pick nits (and we are), there’s a problem with the temperature of Crematoria. 700 Fahrenheit is hot, but it’s not so hot that it would scorch the earth. Venus, the hottest world in the solar system, gets up to 900 Fahrenheit (482 Celsius) and, if you could go there, the ground would be solid beneath your feet. It truly is a hellscape of intense heat and pressure, but if you’re looking for a world that feels like an ant under a magnifying glass, it’ll have to be hotter.

Recently, astronomers using the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) telescope discovered a world even more hellish than Crematoria, 70 light-years from here. The exoplanet, dubbed HD 63443, orbits so closely to its star that it’s tidally locked, one side perpetually facing the light. On that distant world, temperatures reach more than 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 Celsius), maintaining a hemisphere of molten rock.

Asteroids approach a lava planet.

To date, more than 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered, many of which orbit incredibly close to their parent stars and are smoking hot. That’s partly an artifact of the way we find exoplanets. Some of the easiest methods (we’re using that term loosely, there’s nothing easy about it) for finding exoplanets are through their gravitational influence, or the shadow they cast as they pass between us and their star.

The transit method relies on an exoplanet passing in front of its parent star from our POV. When that happens, astronomers observe a periodic dip in the light coming from that star. By measuring the interval between dips and how much light gets blocked, astronomers can calculate the orbital period and the diameter of distant worlds.

If an exoplanet doesn’t pass in front of its star from our POV, we might still be able to detect it by its gravitational influence. When a relatively massive planet orbits relatively closely to its parent star, the gravitational dance causes the star to wobble back and forth, following the pull of the planet. How much a star wobbles helps astronomers know a planet is there and how massive it might be. Both of those methods work best the closer and more massive an exoplanet is; a world which tugs hardest on its star or covers a significant portion when it transits makes for a clearer target.

The consequence of those detection methods is a growing number of discovered exoplanets which are hot as hell. Through a bit of cosmic and scientific happenstance, the worlds which are easiest for us to find happen to be the ones which would make the best prison planets.

Visit Crematoria in The Chronicles of Riddick, streaming now on Peacock.