Exoplanet Excursions: February 2014

Jon feels the pangs of home as he travels to a watery super-Earth in Lyra.

Our first few Exoplanet Excursions have been rather extreme – the molten environment of Alpha Centauri Bb and radiation-saturated pulsar PSR 1257+12 testing the resilience of the Cruiser Globe* to its limits.

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Credit: Illustration by Mark Garlick

Seeing it parked in a farmer’s barn in Lancashire with a glint of winter Sun reflecting from its upper surface, the words of my Aunty Hilda resonate: “Never mind all your adventures Stan, can’t we just go somewhere nice?” They sound like the wisest words ever spoken.

Heeding that advice, the Kepler 62 system in the constellation of Lyra sounds most inviting. I’ll head in that direction at 4.10am – a canny departure time which avoids the Cruiser Globe being the cause of too many UFO reports.

It’s an awe-inspiring approach to this planetary system and its alien beauty. Kepler 62 is smaller than the Sun and redder, shining with a deep orange glow like a giant ember –as though it has a dimmer switch set to cosy. This star is seven billion years old, much older than our Sun’s 4.6 billion years, and its benevolent light inspires feelings of contentedness and wellbeing, the kind you’d have walking up the garden path to visit a wise old relative.

There are a fair few planets orbiting Kepler 62 on which to park the Cruiser Globe. I’ve chosen Kepler 62e – a bigger ‘super-Earth’, 62 per cent larger than our own planet, The innermost planet in the system’s Goldilocks zone, it seems to be Earth’s older, more grown-up sibling.

And upon landing, great, great heavens, what a vision of everything we’d consider breathtakingly beautiful! What a familiar, yet alien, spectacular water world Kepler 62e is. Small isles comparable to Sark or the Falklands are sprinkled across a view of endless ocean on this alien paradise bathed in orange light.

At a humid 29ºC, Earth-like cloud formations gently drape Kepler 62e’s tangerine sky. John Lennon could have got three more verses for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds out of this place. Kepler 62e is a like a luxury holiday resort, a planet-sized Azore or Bahama. The size of the planet gives me a challenge, though. The gravity here means everything is considerably heavier. Moving is tough work, pushing through G-force pressure similar to that created by the launch of a Saturn V rocket. This is going to take some adapting to.

There is however, a welcome cycle of day and night, as we’re not tidally locked. The dusk sky briskly transforms from deep orange into an iridescent Roman bronze – a mesmerising alien twilight! And here, 1,200 lightyears away from Earth, the constellations appear intriguingly distorted. As mighty Orion comes into view, his stance is less of the strident hunter and more akin to a flamboyant pose from Gok Wan. “Looking fierce, girlfriend!” came the message from the skies. What an incredible planet to behold. I think I’ll stay a while.

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


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

 

 

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