Exoplanet Excursions: December 2013

Jon Culshaw's off-world travelogue kicks off with a trip to our nearest star system.

Today we are living though a deliciously effervescent period of discovery – a new and beautifully alien exoplanet being discovered almost weekly. What once seemed unreachable 
is drawing closer to us.

 

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Credit: Illustration by Mark Garlick

So, each month in our Exoplanet Excursions I shall bring these exotic 
other worlds to life as our human senses might perceive them, imagining such alien experiences as what it would feel like to watch four suns of varying hues set after a blizzard of raining glass. The results will be entered in a travelogue, much as Judith Chalmers did with Bratislava and Lanzarote.

On our first excursion, it seems reasonable to visit the neighbour, the Alpha Centauri system. At 4.37 lightyears away, we could just about get there in 
the time between two football World Cups – once we’ve mastered lightspeed travel, at least.

I’m here to visit the chirpily named exoplanet Alpha Centauri Bb, discovered on 12 October 2012 using Doppler spectroscopy. Yes it sounds like a 
band John Peel would have introduced, but this technique found a world 
similar in size to Earth, orbiting an extremely close 0.04 AU to the star 
Alpha Centauri B.

Good gracious, Alpha Centauri Bb is an absolute vision of hell, but what would you expect from a world 25 times closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun? Safe inside my Pyrex Cruiser Globe*, with my heat force-field settings turned up to maximum, there’s a comfortable and utterly mesmerising view over this tidally locked planet and the star it orbits.

It’s beyond profound. A star, hanging in this alien sky, 22 times larger than 
our Sun and an incredible 300 times brighter. I set the reactolight filters on 
the cruiser globe to 60 per cent power 
to shield the glare and take in the view. This deep orange star and the deep orange lava on Alpha Centauri Bb’s surface blend like an ocean-sized infinity pool of molten tomato soup.

There’s a steadfast sense of dependability in how Alpha Centauri B hangs in the sky of this tidally locked planet. It’s confusing and downright 
odd to have no way of perceiving time from a star that never moves – frankly 
I don’t know when to have breakfast.

Steering the Pyrex Cruiser Globe into reverse now, I head for the terminator and come to rest where we see just the top quarter of the star. It’s a perpetual, horizon-filling sunset – a sunset with 
the pause button pressed, and it’s easier to feel peaceful and more reflective in 
this zone. Reversing further to Alpha Centauri Bb’s constant dark side brings welcome reminders of Earth’s night sky with some familiar constellations.

But wait – Cassiopeia has an intriguing extra point of light within it. With a pang of affection I realise that this is none other than our own Sun! Good on our dear old plucky star for gatecrashing Cassiopeia and turning it from the W we all know into something that looks more like a 1950s pram.

Well, this feels the moment to depart Alpha Centauri for our next Exoplanet Excursion. Farther next time? Much, much farther.

*Technology described is yet to be invented. Just go with it!


This column appeared in the December 2013 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine

 

 

Like this article? Why not:
A passion for space: April 2014
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Exoplanet Excursions: January 2014
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