Exoplanet Excursions: November 2014

Jon‘s endeavour to find the source of an X-ray flare takes him to the edge of oblivion.

From Earth, a small telescope will unveil NGC 4845 as a spiral galaxy in Virgo, shining at a magnitude of +11.2

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Credit: Illustration by Mark Garlick

The light now reaching us from it began its journey 47 million years ago, during Earth’s Eocene epoch – a prehistoric time that gave rise to such exotic creatures as the miniature horse Eohippus and the predatory hell pigs known as Entelodonts.

Such creatures had long since died out when astronomers using ESA’s Integral telescope detected a large X-ray flare near the supermassive black hole at the centre of NGC 4845. Such flares are ominous indicators of a planet that’s in its final, dying moments. Naturally, I’m on my way there to find out if this is a gas giant with an unstable orbit or a world similar to the ‘hot Jupiters’ that undergo planetary migration.

Whatever’s happened, some form of instability or irregularity has meant this world has drifted too close to the bite point of the black hole’s event horizon. Now, like a bug in a Venus flytrap, there’s zero chance of escape.

If I keep a safe distance I should be able to witness this awesomely compelling spectacle. The black hole itself is invisible, despite being 300,000 times the mass of our Sun. Its presence and unfathomable power is given away by the light that is being warped and bent around it.

The Cruiser Globe’s gravity stabilisers and event horizon indicators are thankfully working well, and they’ll need to in such a dangerous environment. Event horizon indicators help keep the globe at a stable distance from that point near a black hole beyond which even light cannot escape. They work on a similar principle to the bleeping proximity sensors that stop you crunching your car into a brick wall while parking, except the stakes are infinitely more cataclysmic and spaghettifying.

The sight of this world’s destruction is one of jaw dropping, mesmerising terror. One half of the planet, gripped by the black hole, has clearly become tidally locked. Its atmosphere, surface gases – in fact all substances – are being violently sucked towards the black hole. The planet appears like the most gigantic comet, with an incandescent yellow tail that sharpens to a thin line like the fiercest Earth cyclone. If there was ever life on any of this gas giant’s Moons, I hope they had the technology to flee this destruction to a safer place. They’d be welcome in Area 51 anytime for some strawberry ice cream and Tibetan music (apparently aliens quite like that sort of thing).

At this rate of consumption, with the substance of the planet ripping away and accelerating to light speed towards the black hole, it’s hard to imagine much remaining after a couple of Earth months. The destructive power of all our nuclear weapons is huge but, compared to this event, seems like popping a crisp bag and saying ‘boo’. This is devastation on an epic, cosmic scale. Time to depart, park on Mars and have a reflective cuppa from my vacuum flask.


Jon Culshaw is a comedian, impressionist and guest on The Sky at Night
This column appeared in the November 2014 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine
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