Exoplanet Excursions: January 2014

Jon’s travelogue continues with a trip to the wasted surface of a world orbiting a pulsar.

Much emboldened by our last trip to the lava planet Alpha Centauri Bb, we’re now confident enough to travel further. With a strong thirst to witness an environment even more alien and unrecognisable, we’re travelling towards the constellation of Virgo and the pulsar PSR 1257+12 – a catchy name, derived from its coordinates and an acronym for ‘pulsating source of radio’.

 

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Credit: Illustration by Mark Garlick

This pulsar is a hot core, all that remains of a dead star after it went supernova, and at 0.00002x the radius of our Sun it’s really rather small. Just under 14km across, in fact, which makes it tinier than Guernsey, but it has enormous mass to make up for it.

There are some serious laws of physics going on with pulsars. This one is spinning around 10 times per second 
– slow compared to some, which rotate up to 300 times a second. The cruiser globe needs special adaptations for this trip 
– a five-layer force field to protect against the staggering levels of radiation. This pulsar’s magnetic field drives two beams of high-energy particles with the force of a trillion water cannons. We’ll also need to reinforce our molecular signature to ensure stability as we travel the 980 lightyears to PSR 1257+12 in just 23 minutes. We’ll be using ‘dimensional arc displacement’, a new way of harnessing the potential energy that lies within this mind-boggling distance.*

We’re destined for the planet nearest the pulsar, a planet I’m going to call ‘Radia Prima’, based on the Latin for ‘first radiation’. This world is about the size of our Moon and has a surface like a massive, deadly burnt cinder; magnificent desolation that’s not so magnificent. Frankly it is eerie: outside black holes, this is destruction near the maximum level that the Universe can wreak. No life we know could ever survive radiation like this.

Thankfully, the cruiser globe’s defences are working well and from the devastated surface of Radia Prima we can take in the spellbindingly alien view of PSR 1257+12. Beams of radiation cascade outwards from the pulsar like a violent sapphire aurora searing the surrounding Universe; they resemble a 1973 Doctor Who title sequence. The beams don’t make a sound, but my imagination is creating one: the hum of an electronic insect killer in a Harrogate butcher’s shop comes to mind as the silvery aurora strobes and flashes outwards.

Against this, the most spectacularly alien vision is of the two other planets in this system, each easily four times the mass of Earth. I reverse the cruiser globe far enough to see them in their ‘new’ phase, and the black circular voids move with silent foreboding, symbolising the sheer deadliness of our location. It is human instinct to consider whether this toxic zone could be healed, terraformed or made safe. How quaint of us. In reality, like Magellan in the seething heat of Venus our time is limited and now it’s wise to quickly depart.

For our next exoplanet excursion, I’m craving a trip to somewhere pretty. Join me again next month as we step out of the cruiser globe and take a stroll…

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


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

 

 

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