Exoplanet Excursions: March 2014

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

Pulsar planets and lava worlds are spellbinding to look upon, but these dangerous environments mean that 
only the briefest visits are possible. Kepler 62e – where we stopped last month – is the utter opposite. It’s a paradise world where the most natural reaction 
is a desire to stay for many decades. For 
a while, then, we shall.

 

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Credit: Illustration by Mark Garlick

These habitable conditions call for a spot of exoplanet astronomy. There’s room in the Cruiser Globe’s maintenance store for my 12-inch reflector, so we can observe our home star as it appears from here as a fragile, flickering point of light. Observing the Sun from a faraway alien place brings profound pangs of emotion 
– fondness, pride, even vulnerability. It’s a reassuring connection to home.

Thoughts of Earthly sunrises are front of mind as Kepler 62e’s sky looks ready for a sunrise of its own. We’ll imminently have the chance for the most amazing compare and contrast as the red star rises spectacularly above the horizon, lightening the alien sky through a sequence of shades like a 1970s car colour chart. Black to dark Roman bronze, tawny to copper metallic and Sebring red, then finally a spectacular tangerine-tinged Arizona gold.

Kepler 62’s light once again illuminates the perpetual ocean views of this water planet, stretching beneath cloud formations I’ve never seen the likes of. Interweaving cumulonimbus horsetails resemble long, stretched cloud bands on Jupiter as they lace across the sky like rigging on an old pirate ship. What kind of intriguing atmospheric movement creates such patterns?

The rose-illuminated waters show signs of effervescence, as if they’re carbonated. Could this be a sign of life existing deep down in these Keplerian oceans? I reverse the Cruiser Globe back over the terminator to observe the rise of Kepler 62e once more, then reluctantly, I steer away from this paradise planet. But in no more than 10 minutes I’m faced with the looming presence of neighbouring super-Earth Kepler 62f. 
A quick pit stop seems a grand idea.

On the outer edge of this system’s Goldilocks zone, 62f is habitable but harsh. In this much cooler region, the oceans on 62f are frozen, making our surface view one of endless jagged, angular columns of ice, clustered up against one another like a haphazard dog-tooth check of shattered glass. It’s reminiscent of Jupiter’s moon Europa, but with sound; this vista of interlocked ice lets out a series of cracks, creaks and rumblings, like a tape recording of the pops and crackles of a log fire played at very slow speed.

I’m suddenly struck by the strong similarities of this star’s habitable zone to our own Solar System: Earth with greatest inhabitability followed by more distant Mars with its harsher environment, but habitable with adaptations. That pattern is echoed in Kepler 62’s Goldilocks zone, and I wonder whether this increases the odds for life taking hold where it can throughout the Universe. Who knows when we’ll encounter some alien cousins face to face?


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

 

 

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