EX­CUR­SIONS

Jon charts the north­ern ex­panses of Ke­pler 452b, a realm of storms and hail­stones

Sky at Night Magazine - - EXOPLANET EXCURSIONS - Jon Cul­shaw is a co­me­dian, im­pres­sion­ist and guest on The Sky at Night

The re­mark­able su­per-Earth Ke­pler 452b is serv­ing up an en­dur­ing ar­ray of spec­ta­cle and fas­ci­na­tion. The ar­eas I ex­plored on my pre­vi­ous two stops were rather balmy, warm and hu­mid. This time, re­freshed af­ter a Ke­p­le­rian Christ­mas, I’ve steered the Per­i­he­lion about 6,500km north, where the ex­tra­or­di­nary cloud for­ma­tions have sim­i­lar­i­ties to those on Earth, but Ke­pler 452b’s greater grav­ity fash­ions them into darkly brood­ing slate-grey clumps.

The at­mos­phere ap­pears very rich and thick in com­po­si­tion: the stronger grav­ity draws this dense at­mos­phere down­ward in a po­tent con­cen­tra­tion close to the planet’s sur­face. It looks like I’m about to wit­ness a par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent ex­am­ple of the weather that an at­mos­phere of this scale and den­sity can cre­ate.

Loom­ing in the dis­tance, around 10km away, a tem­pes­tu­ous alien storm is brew­ing. We’re fa­mil­iar with Earth’s cy­clones and twisters, but this storm looks like an end­less tor­rent of molten lead stretch­ing from ground to sky. From this storm zone comes a thun­der­ous sound, like 10,000 iron skips full of nau­ti­cal chains crash­ing down onto gran­ite. The deep rum­ble res­onates in a pow­er­fully un­set­tling man­ner, al­most bring­ing about a sense of nau­sea; I’m grate­ful to be ob­serv­ing this deeply an­gry alien weather phe­nom­ena from a safe dis­tance.

A se­ries of low and broad tree-like growths cover a wide ex­panse in front of the storm zone. They’re squat and sturdy, lus­trous green con­i­cal struc­tures ex­tend­ing up­wards that ap­pear to be for cap­tur­ing mois­ture. They’re rem­i­nis­cent of some plant species we might see on iso­lated is­lands such as Mada­gas­car or the Gala­pa­gos.

At this dis­tance the fierce weather whips up a vi­o­lent alien hail­storm. The dense at­mos­phere and pow­er­ful grav­ity fash­ions a down­pour of hail as fe­ro­cious as an at­tack­ing Ro­man army. Boul­ders of frozen mat­ter the size of bas­ket­balls – Come­tettes I’ll name them – come ham­mer­ing down. The metal shield and hel­met of even the fiercest le­gion­naire would be scant de­fence against a bom­bard­ment like this.

Af­ter three hours or so, the storm gives way to calm­ness and the chance to ob­serve the set­ting of the par­ent star. The den­sity and vast quan­tity of at­mos­phere on this world, 60 per cent larger than Earth, creates the most glo­ri­ous or­ches­tra of re­frac­tions that even In­sta­gram would fail to imitate. Deep­est ma­roon, rac­ing greens and shim­mer­ing lilac and or­ange tones beam in all di­rec­tions across the sky.

Glanc­ing at the Per­i­he­lion’s Uni­verse clock, I see Earth’s read­ings presently reg­is­ter ‘Jan­uary 2016’. As the star sets be­yond this rich at­mos­phere it takes on the warm cop­per hue of a gen­er­ous mea­sure of sin­gle malt. Al­low me to raise a glass to you in th­ese early days of 2016. Wish­ing you God­speed and clear skies through­out this New Year.

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