EXOPLANET EX­CUR­SIONS

Jon re­mains in the Ke­pler 16 sys­tem to catch a to­tal eclipse in day­light

Sky at Night Magazine - - A PASSION FOR SPACE - JON CULSHAW’S Jon Culshaw is a co­me­dian, im­pres­sion­ist and guest on The Sky at Night

Hav­ing de­cided to re­main a lit­tle longer in Ke­pler 16b’s home sys­tem we are set to wit­ness a quite in­cred­i­ble phe­nom­ena. As the light of the two par­ent stars be­gins to cre­ate a day­time glow of rose and gold blends, there ap­pears a grow­ing ‘bite’ at the four o’clock po­si­tion on the fiery edge of Ke­pler 16A. I’m hop­ing with all the an­tic­i­pa­tion I can muster that this is go­ing to progress into a to­tal stel­lar eclipse!

Af­ter 37 min­utes it ap­pears to be go­ing that way. At first the bite from the side of the star is sim­i­lar to the Ap­ple logo. Now, as more of Ke­pler 16A is ob­scured, the im­age is re­sem­bling the sickle of the old Soviet flag.

Ke­pler 16A is a K class star whose light has a sub­tly dif­fer­ent shade to what we’re fa­mil­iar with from the Sun: it shines with a sense of sodium street light­ing, giv­ing an in­trigu­ing con­trast to the par­tial phases of eclipses we’re used to on Earth. An­other fas­ci­nat­ing dif­fer­ence with this Ke­p­le­rian eclipse is how Ke­pler 16B, the other star in the sys­tem, is still shin­ing like nor­mal. As Ke­pler 16A be­comes in­creas­ingly ob­scured, there is a far smaller tem­per­a­ture drop and dim­ming of the day­light.

In the util­ity store of my ship, the Per­i­he­lion, for some rea­son I can’t quite re­call, there is a colan­der. As I hold it up be­tween the two stars, the pin­hole ef­fect of the colan­der’s holes shows nu­mer­ous cres­cents from the par­tially eclipsed Ke­pler 16A and full discs from Ke­pler 16B. It’s very pleas­ing to build up my col­lec­tion of ob­ser­va­tions of dif­fer­ences be­tween this alien eclipse and those we know from Sun and Moon alignments.

Eclipses are al­ways very tense affairs. Fac­tors en­tirely be­yond our con­trol such as cru­elly un­co­op­er­a­tive weather have the po­ten­tial to scup­per the ex­pe­ri­ence. Here though, on the sur­face of our Mars-sized moon around gas gi­ant Ke­pler 16b, the view is pristinely clear. An alien to­tal­ity is mere mo­ments away. Quickly I glance round to this moon’s op­po­site horizon and, with the eclipse be­hind me, the vi­sion of gas gi­ant Ke­pler 16b hangs in the alien sky as if ob­serv­ing the spec­ta­cle for it­self.

As the fi­nal slith­ers of light be­come blocked, there are no ef­fects sim­i­lar to Bai­ley’s Beads or a di­a­mond ring. Per­haps the ob­ject caus­ing the eclipse is smooth and un­cratered or has a very dense at­mos­phere. The even­tual to­tal­ity is stag­ger­ing to be­hold and cre­ates a scene un­like any­thing we could wit­ness on Earth. The younger star’s outer corona shim­mers at greater speed than that of our Sun and has a more ful­some ‘golden hour’ glow. And for a to­tal eclipse to be hap­pen­ing in the light of day, as Ke­pler 16B shines on, is rather bizarre: an eclipse scene with an eerie beauty all of its own.

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