Exoplanet Excursions: October 2015

Jon retakes the helm of the Cruiser Globe, and almost immediately wishes he hadn’t.

A
a
-
Image Credit: 
Mark Garlick
Credit: Illustration by Mark Garlick

I’m compelled to journey to Kepler 70, a star immensely more elderly than our Sun, having gone through its red giant phase a staggering 18.4 million years ago. It has become a B-type subdwarf star and sits 3,849 lightyears away in the most elegant constellation of Cygnus. Such a frail old star in such a graceful constellation brings to mind a grand old actress having retired to Harrogate, drinking sherry and having a contented twilight time.
 
In a close orbit around the star are two planets, Kepler 70b and 70c. The first completes an orbit in a dizzying 5.8 hours, as it is just 0.006 AU away from its host star. Perhaps it was similar to Jupiter in the days before its parent star expanded into a red giant – a process that would have blasted its gaseous layers away – but all that’s left now is a molten core.
 
The second is my destination. Planet 70c sits in a more habitable area, whose orbit occasionally brings it very close to its neighbour at just 240,000km or so. It will be wonderful to observe celestial clockwork of such graceful enormity. The elderly star Kepler 70 evokes a nostalgic feeling and so I’m making our excursion in my old ship, the trusty Cruiser Globe. It’s the interstellar equivalent of popping a picnic hamper in the back of the Cortina and heading to the countryside.
 
But alarmingly, there’s a problem: the coordinate programmers of the old Cruiser Globe are failing! Perhaps it’s the powerful magnetic activity streaming from the star: the Cruiser Globe has lost its entire ability to place voyage coordinates with any degree of accuracy! Having overshot my intended location, I’m now at the mercy of the gravity of planet 70b, which is a pure vision of hell.
 
The Cruiser Globe has been locked into orbit around the planet, amid streams of noxious vapours burning off from the molten surface. More worryingly, the orbit the ship is caught in is decaying, and unless I act with the greatest urgency, my fate will be like the disturbing scene in the 1965 film She, in which Ursula Andress acquaints some unfortunates with a lava pit.
 
All I can do is hammer a few buttons on board the Cruiser Globe coordinate programmers, if my senses can deal with the paralysing heat and lacerating stench. I can but crudely aim for ‘Solar System’ and hope for the best. Switching the controls off and then on again, there’s a lurching surge like the downward plunge of a rollercoaster.
 
Forty-three disorientating, punishing minutes later, there’s a noticeable calming, and the Cruiser Globe, in a final gasp of working properly, delivers on its promise of ‘Solar System’. As the ship creaks and limps into safer regions, how beautifully familiar Pluto and Charon look as they reassuringly loom into view. It is an emotional homecoming!
 
Once, over in a Greenwich pub, The Sky at Night co-presenter Chris Lintott commented: “You only ever encounter awesome spectacle on your Exoplanet Excursions. You never have a terrible time do you?” Well, Professor Lintott, I hope you’re satisfied!

Jon Culshaw is a comedian, impressionist and guest on The Sky at Night.

This column originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.

Like this article? Why not:
How to keep warm when observing
previous feature Article
How to build a tabletop tracking mount
next feature Article
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here