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Researchers discover new exoplanet with 'hellish' conditions

2 weeks 5 days 11 hours ago Friday, November 06 2020 Nov 6, 2020 November 06, 2020 9:48 AM November 06, 2020 in News
Source: Space.com

Researchers believe they've identified a 'hellish' exoplanet comprised of a molten lava ocean and an atmosphere that's partially made up of vaporized rock, space.com reports.

That lava world is an exoplanet called K2-141b that was originally discovered in 2017.

It's not as large as Earth, only about half of our planet's size, but K2-141b orbits so closely to its star, which is one class smaller than our own, that it completes several loops each Earth-day with the same surface permanently facing the star.

Researchers now believe these factors mean two-thirds of the lava world's surface are permanently sunlit, and that part of the planet is covered in a lava ocean, they also believe that some of its rock evaporates away into the atmosphere.

"All rocky planets­, including Earth, started off as molten worlds but then rapidly cooled and solidified," Nicolas Cowan, a planetary scientist at McGill University in Canada and a coauthor on the new paper, said in a statement. "Lava planets give us a rare glimpse at this stage of planetary evolution."

The scientists behind the new information on the lava planet made the discovery thanks to K2 mission of NASA's Kepler Space Telescope and by the agency's Spitzer Space Telescope, which were used in an effort to understand what sort of atmosphere such a hot world might have and how terrestrial tools would see it.

The planet's atmosphere is of special interest to scientists because NASA's soon-to-be-revealed James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch late next year, will be able to analyze the components of distant planetary atmospheres.

According to space.com, researchers started with what previous studies have determined about K2-141b so far — for example, that the planet's density is about that of Earth's, so the crust can be modeled as pure silica as a reasonably simplified representation. After this, the scientists figured out what the surface might look like.

Their estimates took into account complications such as the fact that the planet is so close to its star that more than half the world's surface might be sunlit, perhaps as much as two-thirds, the researchers calculated.

This constant barrage of light and heat mean the world probably has a magma ocean tens of miles or kilometers deep, according to the team's calculations.

After this analysis, the researchers modeled what an atmosphere here would look like based on three potential main ingredients, all of which are common in the crusts of rocky planets.

Researchers calculated that all three cases can support an atmosphere with wind speeds above 1.1 miles (1.75 kilometers) per second, far faster than the speed of sound here on Earth.

At the edges of the atmosphere, where temperatures drop, the gaseous rock would cool enough to fall back to the surface as precipitation, the researchers said.

They added that if the atmosphere is dominated by silica or silicon monoxide, that precipitation would mostly fall into the magma ocean, but if the atmosphere is predominantly sodium, the planet would look even weirder, with solid sodium oozing back toward the oceans like glaciers here on Earth, the researchers wrote.

Their research is further detailed in a paper published Nov. 3 in the journal the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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