Exoplanet Excursions: August 2014

Jon pops 40 years into the future to hear a METI transmission reach its destination.

I’ve decided to stay in the 55 Cancri system a little longer to visit a moon of 55 Cancri f, a gas giant contentedly perched at the heart of its star’s habitable zone.

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Credit: Illustration by Mark Garlick

I’m also attempting a first in the Cruiser Globe – a spot of time travel. If I set our apparent exterior speed to slightly faster than that of light, some future directed time travel should be achievable, keeping our path to an orbital loop around 55 Cancri f at the distance the ISS orbits Earth.

The reason for this trip in time is that in July 2003 the Evpatoria Planetary Radar sent a METI transmission, or Message to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, in the direction of 55 Cancri, hoping that there might be alien life to receive it. That signal should reach its destination in May 2055 and it’s to that point of time that I’m destined, to intercept the METI signal and play it through the Crusier Globe’s speakers.

My daring time leap goes smoothly, despite my feeling that I’ve awoken from 1970s dental gas anaesthesia. With the Cruiser Globe’s planetary locators set to ‘moon grade’, it’s guided me to an equatorial plateau on a satellite of 55 Cancri f that’s roughly 1.5 times the size of Titan.

This world is reassuringly Earth-like, with regions of dark green foliage interspersed with bizarre purple trees – if I can call them trees, being only around 1.5m in height – with a texture resembling broccoli. This all lies in long stretches beside flowing, liquid water. The habitable zone of 55 Cancri appears to be cradling flourishing swathes of vegetation.

In this alien sky there’s a glorious view of 55 Cancri f, the gas giant weighing in around half the mass of Saturn and set off nicely with a thin ring system. The sight of this planet is arresting and imposing without utterly dominating the sky: a marvellous world calmly glowing like Earthshine cast on the Moon, and just a little lighter than the blue of the sky it occupies. Its appearance is almost like a hybrid of Saturn and Neptune. I don’t know whether to call it Satune or Nepturn.

From this location and time, the METI signal should be just 3 AU away and audible in about 25 minutes. I test the Cruiser Globe’s speakers with vintage sounds from my BBC Radiophonic Workshop CD.

With a minute to go I pause the CD and precisely on cue, the METI message ‘Cosmic Call 2’ arrives at its destination. How fascinating to hear something the human race considered to be logically understandable by an alien form of intelligence – I hope I do count as a form of intelligence. The signal pulsates with ordered rhythms evocative of ‘Dreams of Leaving’, an early experimental track from the Human League’s Travelogue album.

At the side of the water flows are a number of indentations tantalisingly resembling reptilian ‘footprints’ leading back into the foliage. If they are real they look like they could be from a small, bipedal creature about the size of a meerkat. Might they belong to an alien intelligence hearing the METI signal at this very moment?


 

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

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

 

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