The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s science news pages are currently carrying a story about the discovery of a ‘rogue’ planet(i) ‘wandering all alone through deep space without a host star’. As far as such stories go, it’s an interesting astronomy tidbit, evoking, in the words of Philippe Delorme from France’s Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics, a ‘striking image of orphaned worlds, drifting in the emptiness of space’.

The editors of the ABC science pages(ii), however, have taken the view that readers will not have the wits nor imagination to be able to conjure up the striking image for themselves, and so have helpfully provided an artist’s impression to help them along.(iii)

I am not a big fan of the artist’s impression.

How much does this ‘impression’ tell you about the reality of the event in question? Would you say that it’s reasonable to expect that, should you be able to hop in a fast spaceship and fly off to planet CFBDSIR2149 (as it is catchily named), this artist’s impression would give you a vague idea of what you might see? This romantic milky sapphire marble swimming in a luminous sea of misty cerulean stars? Well, my friends, you’d be mightily disappointed. CFBDSIR2149 does not orbit any sun, and so does not reflect any light. In addition, it does not emit much, if any, visible light of its own either, being detected as it was by M. Delorme, via infrared radiation. The Wikipedia entry on CFBDSIR2149 has this to say:

In visible light the object is so cool that it would only shine dimly with a deep red colour when seen close-up.

All things considered, here is a better artist’s impression of what you might see should you ever be in the close proximity of CFBDSIR2149.

Yep. It’s never going to feature on the ’10 Most Visually Impressive Planets You Must Visit Before You Die’ list, that’s for sure.

So what use, actually, is this artist’s impression? It tells us nothing at all about the reality of CFBDSIR2149,(iv) substituting actual facts with a whole lot of visual speculation and even just plain old untruths. Why not paint a picture of the Death Star or a Borg Cube – ‘impressionistically’ speaking, either would be just as informative. Worse still, whatever mental image we might have formed of a darkened planetary body drifting forlornly across the unimaginable dark nothingness of the interstellar void is now indelibly replaced by the fantasy of an azure Xmas bauble that has no relation to anything.

Here is an artist’s impression of what I believe should be the fate of editors who indulge in artist’s impressions.(v)

_________________________________________________________________________
Footnotes:

  1. Is it just me, or does the term ‘rogue planet’ automatically conjure for anyone else Wagnerian-type music and sinister intentions? I mean, it’s not like it set out to storm the universe and take no prisoners. Why is it not simply an ‘orphan’ planet, or a ‘lost’ planet? What’s actually rogue about it? []
  2. Along with just about every other outlet carrying the story… []
  3. It is worth noting here that when the story first went up, the image was presented without the explanatory caption. []
  4. C’mon! Astronomers! Where are the days of imagination when planets had names? Are we to expect that if you were doing the solar system anew we’d be living on 3 and sending little rovers off to 4? How BORING is that? []
  5. Yes, I am aware of the recursive nature of what I did there. []

_________________________________________________________________________