We’ve seen it plenty of times before. It’s been a staple backdrop of science fiction movies for years. The camera pulls back from our hero’s dazed expression of wonder to reveal a sky dominated by a huge planet, something completely alien to anyone who is used to a single moon of modest size. It’s the audience’s clue that they aren’t in Kansasanymore. Well now a team of scientists working with data from NASA’s Kepler mission have found the first planet to share that exotic sci-fi nightscape.
Kepler 36-b is a rocky planet 1.5 times bigger, but 4.5 times as heavy as Earth. It orbits a star like our Sun that happens to be billions of years older. By itself, 36-b would be interesting just for its close size to our own world but the proximity of its closest neighbor is what is really drawing attention. Kepler 36-c is a gaseous planet that falls into the “hotNeptune” class of exoplanets. Every 97 days the planets align in a conjunction and their orbits bring them only 5 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon from each other, meaning 36-c looms large in 36-b’s sky at night. It’s a pretty safe bet that Kepler 36-b is a geologically active volcano planet (also another sci-fi staple), because of the gravitational forces between it and its close neighbor constantly stretching and compressing it’s interior during these frequent conjunctions. So having a huge planet in the sky and being covered in lava, Kepler 36-b is the kind of planet that is just asking for a post yougling-killing, whiney jedi smackdown.
Here is an artist’s impression of the fantastic sky over Kepler 36-b
It makes me happy knowing that the universe is just weird enough to allow for this kind of spectacle. At the very least, I won’t snort the next time I watch Predators and they show the crazy planet-filled sky that looks like Galactus just puked all over it.
OK, I’ll still snort, just not as loudly.