Exoplanet Excursions: January 2016
Still on Kepler 452b, Jon experiences his first instance of exoplanetary pareidolia.
Having marvelled at the majestic Earth-like appearance of Kepler 452b and begun to adjust to gravity 60 per cent stronger than Earth’s, I cannot bring myself to depart this exoplanet just yet.
The terrain has such astonishing variability that I’m desperate to stay, observe and explore much more.
I steer my ship, the Perihelion, 500km west and a brand new vista looms into view, utterly different from the patchwork of beige lakes I had seen before.
Here there are numerous layers of what appear to be curved, swooping river paths, separated by stubby, low mountainous outcrops. The rivers follow paths like sine waves on an oscilloscope.
I can see nine of them, each adjacent to the other and all containing what looks like rusty, briny liquid water.
My estimation is they’re all around 3km wide.
They remind me of those seasonal liquid water flows recently described on Mars, but on a vastly greater scale.
The flow of the liquid is not like the familiar river torrents on Earth: it is slower.
There are waves covering a larger area; the sound is a bit like a recording of Earthly rivers with the tape slowed down, perhaps due to the absence of a satellite like our Moon to create tides.
It’s a movement like water in an Olympic pool 10 minutes after the 200m freestyle final; having pulsed up and down, the water has settled back into a calmer rhythm after its vigorous agitation.
Between two of the wider sections of these oddly concentric alien river swells is a patch of green with features tantalisingly similar to a Serengeti watering hole.
Could this possibly be a localised zone supporting alien lifeforms?
I keep a 7-inch reflector telescope stored in the Perihelion and I hurriedly remove it from the hold, impatiently setting it up to observe this area of foliage from a safe distance.
What I see is deeply peculiar sights.
At the edge of one of the sharpest curves of the alien river bank there is what appears to be an astonishingly bizarre creature.
At what must be around 6m long, through the telescope eyepiece this lifeform is like a hybrid of a hippopotamus and the larva of an elephant hawk moth.
A wide bulky body, very low to the ground, seems to be achieving its slow locomotion on eight squat limbs resembling a caterpillar’s prolegs.
This kind of physiognomy would certainly suit the powerful gravity here.
The movement of this ‘creature’ is so imperceptibly slow it’s like watching the minute hand of a clock.
Only by looking away and then looking back a short while later can any movement be made out.
I can hear Sir David Attenborough describing “this quite extraordinary cross between a sloth and a land whale”.
This certainly chimes with our human perceptions of what sentient life is – unless, of course, this is simply an illusion which resembles life in more a sophisticated fashion to ‘The Face on Mars’.
Kepler 452b becomes ever more mind boggling! It is far too early to depart here just yet.
Jon Culshaw is a comedian, impressionist and guest on The Sky at Night.
This column originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.