Outer space will never be fully explored by humanity, which makes it such a ripe subject for fictional media—and that's especially true of anime.
Anime series set in outer space offer all kinds of interesting concepts and plots, from strange discoveries about the universe to dystopian futures where Earth itself is no longer habitable.
The narratives in these various anime series offer different interpretations of outer space's potential. In some, outer space hides horrifying creatures beyond our understanding. In others, outer space is a wonderful place that represents the last hope of humanity.
Of course, you also have anime series where outer space is just a setting to explore futuristic technologies—like mechas and their pilots—and worlds with topographies that couldn't occur on Earth.
Here are my picks for the best anime series set in outer space, that do a lot with their settings and offer something new to the genre.
In the ID-0 anime series, we get a lot of traditional elements of mecha anime, but this time mixed with the feel of Sword Art Online.
Unlike many other mecha anime series, ID-0 features machines without cockpits. Instead, these machines use a mineral called Orichalt to fuse a pilot's consciousness with a specific machine.
If that doesn't sound intriguing enough, there's more: ID-0 also features a class of people known as Evertrancers, who permanently lost—or voluntarily gave up—their bodies and now live fully as machines.
The series centers on an ordinary student, Maya Mikuri, who accidentally gets caught up with space pirates who illegally mine Orichalt. There, she meets Ido, an Evertrancer who has no memory of who he really is.
Gunbuster is a lesser-known anime series by Hideaki Anno, the acclaimed creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gunbuster also happens to feature giant mecha robots fighting for humanity, except this time they're up against insect-like monsters invading the Earth.
What makes this classic series feel more sci-fi is its clever use of "time dilation" in space, a concept that generally hasn't been used much (but was used to great effect in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar).
With time dilation, the pilots return home to find that years have passed, when it was only a matter of minutes for them.
7. Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury
The Mobile Suit Gundam series was the very first Gundam series, and it was the one that established and launched the prominent franchise.
There have been several different series within the Mobile Suit Gundam line, with each one evolving and improving upon previous ones. The Witch From Mercury is one unique example.
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury puts female pilots on center stage, honoring the idea that if men can be pilots, women can as well.
It follows the typical Gundam story beats: there's inequality between factions in the population—space people and Earth-borns—and conflict of powers, with mecha robots used to solve their problems.
This series features the use of GUND Format, a technology involving neural links between Gundam suits and their pilots, which are banned because of their risks to users.
Terraformars is an anime series featuring one of the most horrifying creatures ever seen in anime: giant mutant cockroaches!
These aren't your typical household roaches that you can swat with a slipper. They're massive, they're humanoid, and they are significantly stronger than normal human beings.
In Terraformars, humans use a terraforming procedure to seed Mars with life—by releasing cockroaches on the planet to spread a modified algae. When humans return several hundred years later, those cockroaches have evolved in ways unintended.
To prevent things from going apocalyptic, a group of people from Earth create super soldiers to battle the super cockroaches.
5. Carole & Tuesday
Unlike the other entries on this list, Carole & Tuesday is a lighthearted anime series that centers on a coming-of-age plot, with heavy themes of friendship and elements of a musical.
The story involves Tuesday (a runaway girl from a rich family) and Carole (a girl from Earth), both aspiring musicians who team up together to achieve their dreams in Alba City (the largest city on Mars).
4. Gurren Lagann
At first, Gurren Lagann seems like any other dystopian anime series, featuring people who are forced to live underground.
But when the two main boys defy the rules and manage to reach the surface, the story unveils a space adventure that awaits them.
Gurren Lagann follows the adventures of Simon, Kamina, Yoko, and "mecha" robots called Gunmen in their fight against Lordgenome (and, later on, with the Anti-Spiral).
This anime series features a mecha robot that's both awesome and unordinary—it's so large, no galaxy in the universe can rival it.
3. Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphan
The Gundam series is known for its intense fight scenes, centered on piloted robots that blast each other, injuring or even killing the pilots in the process. It's pretty violent stuff.
Even so, Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphan is far darker than the other Gundam series—because the pilots are just kids.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphan highlights the space wars, the oppressive higher authorities, the inequalities of society, and the effects they have on young minds and the environment.
This series follows the story of Mikazuki Augus, his iconic Mobile Suit ASW-G-08 (Gundam Barbatos), and their fight for freedom.
2. Outlaw Star
Outlaw Star is a classic anime series that features the vast outer space and the dangers therein, including pirates, outlaws, and magic casters who all want the same thing: the Galactic Leyline.
The story follows Gene Starwind and his crew, comprised of the young Jim Hawkings and the bio-android Melfina, aboard an advanced spaceship named XGP 15A-II (also known as Outlaw Star). Within XGP is Gilliam II, an AI that helps operate the ship.
Outlaw Star features space chases, spaceship battles, Western-style gun fights, and a romantic love story between Gene and Melfina.
1. Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop will always be the quintessential space anime series, with its expert blend of genres—including Western, comedy, space opera, and cyberpunk—topped off with so many exciting storylines.
Cowboy Bebop follows the bounty-hunting adventures of Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, Edward, and the genetically modified dog Ein, who are all part of the crew aboard the Bebop.
Although their endeavors as bounty hunters can be quite profitable, they often end up broke due to unfortunate circumstances. That forces them to pursue all kinds of episodic adventures.
More importantly, Cowboy Bebop is an exploration of each character's intriguing past, which adds layers of tension to every episode.