Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A new class of planet

One of the most unusual planets ever encountered outside of our solar system was discovered in 2009.  Astronomers have now confirmed that strangeness.

Dubbed GJ1214b...we really need to get a new name for it...the planet orbits a red dwarf star that is 40 light years from Earth in the constellation Ophiucus.  In terms of size, it is quite a bit larger than Earth but still smaller than the outer gas giants in our solar system such as Neptune.  What makes this planet so unique is that its mass is almost entirely made up of water.  Other indications seem to suggest a thick, steamy atmosphere around the planet as well.  This certainly has many interests piqued for as according to our limited understanding, the rule of thumb is that "where there is water, there is life."

As someone is apt to ask (including myself), "how do astronomers know any of this?"  According to the article linked above, the Hubble Space Telescope watched GJ1214b as it crossed in front of its home star.  Astronomers were able to deduce the planet's watery composition due to the way that the starlight was filtered through the planet's atmosphere and by the infrared color of its sunset.  Fascinating!

"The high temperatures and high pressures would form exotic materials like 'hot ice' or 'superfluid water,' substances that are completely alien to our everyday experience," said one of the lead astronomers on the study.

What I like most about this discovery is that it bears out the old axiom of "the universe isn't stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine."  "Hot ice?"  "Superfluid water?"  Not too long ago, such concepts would have been dismissed.  Not only that, but suggestions of a "waterworld" planet would have been relegated to science fiction, something like Kamino in Star Wars: Episode II.  Now we've found one.

Our definitions of what is "standard" keep getting plied like Silly Putty; not breaking, just stretching beyond points we previously thought unreachable.  Sort of akin to how black holes have gone from being a mere theory to a generally accepted fact.

Speaking of black holes, the next time you're experiencing a windy day, just remember that the smallest black hole known in our galaxy has winds of nearly 20 million miles per hour.  Imagine experiencing that while crossing the event horizon and moving ad rem towards the compression point.  Reminds me of a short story I wrote.   Maybe we can get Graymalkin to chime in here as is the black hole expert in residence here at Strange Horizons.

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