Exoplanet Excursions: April 2014

Jon swaps paradise for thick ice as he continues his tour of the Kepler 62 system.

Sitting at the controls of the Cruiser Globe, I’m gripped by an urge to experience the unfathomable infinity of the Universe.

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Credit: Illustration by Mark Garlick

Such an overused word, ‘awesome’: reasonably priced Florida doughnuts may be described in a twangy Miley Cyrus tone as ‘awesome’, but the vastness of the Universe is awesomeness in the true sense. I hit launch and head off in a random direction.

Soon the Cruiser Globe’s scanning systems indicate an unknown object. I feel a concern similar to Captain Phillips when he spotted the Somali pirates looming. But drawing closer, the great mystery is revealed: this object is a rogue planet. A solitary world drifting through the Universe, devoid of a parent star.

There’s a tantalising blend of fascination and foreboding on approaching this world that was somehow ejected from its system, perhaps by a gravitational encounter with another object. It’s estimated there are around two rogue planets for every star in the Galaxy. Some scientists think there may be many more.

A technique called gravitational microlensing is used to detect rogue planets back on Earth, but there’s no need for such methods today as this particular rogue planet is right in front of me. I land immediately to experience the feeling of this lonesome world.

The view from the surface is a palette of charcoal grey and opaque blackness, like my grandmother’s monochrome Pye TV with the brightness at minimum. This is a rocky world interspersed with features resembling massive lakes of ice. If there’s radioactive decay happening in the planet’s core, it might generate enough heat for the lakes to be liquified deeper down.

There are those who believe it’s possible for Earth-sized wandering planets like this one to retain an atmosphere, perhaps of thick hydrogen. Combine this with enough subterranean geological activity and there could be sufficient warmth generated to support life. These disconnected planets are not without the most intriguing potential.

This alien sky of the deepest blackness has stars so magnificently piercing that they cast shadows. It’s novel to notice that the stars in this rogue planet’s sky never move. Very soon it’s disconcerting, even frustrating that the entire night sky here is an unvarying, motionless mural. Due to not being in a conventional orbit and because any rotation of this planet on its axis has become so imperceptibly slow, the stars in this alien sky wouldn’t appear to change in an entire human lifetime. Sir Patrick would’ve had this dark sky entirely observed, sketched and catalogued in under a week, leaving him plenty of time for cricket and a G&T in the pavilion.

This desolate place conveys a strange feeling of sadness. It seems impossible not to project human emotions onto this environment. Feeling pity for a planet: what a bizarre sensation. I decide to name this lonely world ‘Obsidiana’.

In my imagination I hear the piano theme from the Bill Bixby-era Incredible Hulk TV show as the rogue planet Obsidiana drifts silently through the Universe in her own sweet way.

 


Jon Culshaw is a comedian, impressionist and occasional guest on The Sky at Night

This column appeared in the April 2014 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine
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