EXOPLANETS

The voy­age of the Per­i­he­lion crashes to an end.

Sky at Night Magazine - - CONTENTS - JON CULSHAW’S JON CULSHAW is an im­pres­sion­ist, co­me­dian and guest on The Sky at Night

My ship, the Per­i­he­lion, is des­per­ately try­ing to sta­bilise af­ter she suf­fered cat­a­strophic dam­age near the blue hy­per­giant ‘Saturn Star’ HD 37974 (see last is­sue). Un­der reg­u­lar cir­cum­stances I can en­ter pre­cise ex­o­plan­e­tary co­or­di­nates. As it is, the Per­i­he­lion’s nav­i­ga­tional power has all but van­ished. Touch­ing down in a safe spot feels some­what like land­ing Huy­gens us­ing a ZX81. I’m mut­ter­ing aloud in frus­tra­tion and fear: “Where on Earth? We just don’t know!”

Giv­ing the des­ti­na­tion screen a thump at first only re­sults in a hiss of static, but then a list of gen­er­alised as­tro­nom­i­cal destinations hes­i­tantly pulses into view. Many are ob­sti­nately un­clear: GFTVAK5726892c, Som­brero An­dromeda, 069573909HH24Aa. Af­ter an­other static burst the screen re­turns to a deathly blank­ness.

Then, with the shud­der­ing jolt of a stalling Mor­ris Mi­nor, the Per­i­he­lion be­gins a sick­en­ing lurch so dis­ori­en­tat­ing it’s im­pos­si­ble to grasp any sense of di­rec­tion or des­ti­na­tion. It feels as if my ship is tum­bling through the cos­mos like a rounded lump of cheese bar­relling down a Glouces­ter­shire hill­side.

Mer­ci­fully, af­ter four Earth min­utes, there’s a slow­ing and steady­ing; like a sky­scraper el­e­va­tor calmly ar­riv­ing at the 124th floor. Af­ter my senses ad­just to the wel­come still­ness, I gather suf­fi­cient wits to take a cau­tious look around out­side. What­ever world this is, it’s might­ily strange, dark and dis­con­cert­ing.

Across the sky are nox­ious-look­ing cu­mu­lus cloud for­ma­tions. They’re bronze and deeply sul­phurous with a gen­tle lu­mi­nes­cence. Is this a toxic swathe of an am­mo­nia-like sub­stance wor­thy of a gas gi­ant?

There are more un­nerv­ing sig­nals of life here too. Group­ings of amber and white flick­er­ing lights, like com­pressed glob­u­lar clus­ters, sit upon the horizon. They don’t ap­pear to be nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring. The sur­face of the planet in this dim, gold­washed light is evoca­tive of Huy­gens’ im­ages from Ti­tan. Smooth, rounded rocks are scat­tered in sim­i­lar fash­ion but in far greater num­bers. They rest on a soft base of silty ma­te­rial like grit­ted, soaked clay. A body of liq­uid, re­flect­ing the sul­phur-shaded clouds above, swells over this ter­rain, but the tem­per­a­ture makes it likely to be wa­ter rather than liq­uid meth­ane. Most cu­ri­ous! Could this be an in­hab­ited, ter­res­trial Earth-like planet at the far end of a Messier sys­tem?

But wait, hang on a minute… this is not just an Earth-like world, this is Earth! The bronze, glow­ing clouds are Earth’s own, un­der-lit by street lamps. Those clus­ters of flick­er­ing lights on the horizon don’t em­anate from an alien su­per colony; that’s Portsmouth. This is Selsey beach!

Ear­lier, as I had been mut­ter­ing con­fus­edly about fi­nal destinations: “We just don’t know…” The trusty Per­i­he­lion’s telepathic cir­cuits recog­nised the say­ing and linked it to the fa­mil­iar phrase of­ten used by Sir Pa­trick Moore. Re­mark­ably for the ship’s ad­dled state, its al­go­rithms must have made the con­nec­tion and au­topi­loted me across the lightyears, back to the planet – and in­deed to the town – that Pa­trick called home.

It evokes a feel­ing of peace and a very broad smile. Lo­cal time is 10.24pm; I might make last or­ders at The Seal! Event Horizon Im­pe­rial Stout? Blue Moon? Hmm, I think I’ll have a cup of tea.

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