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Waterworld: A new class of exoplanet is discovered

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February 21, 2012

Artist's view of GJ1214b (Image credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Cen...

Artist's view of GJ1214b (Image credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics))

Image Gallery (2 images)

Planets orbiting two stars, giant super-Earths and worlds racked with boiling rock storms - these are just some of the galactic oddities among the more than 700 exoplanets discovered in the past 20 years. Now there's another new class of extrasolar planet to add to the list - the waterworld.

The planet known as GJ 1214b was originally discovered in 2009 as part of the ground-based MEarth Project led by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) scientist David Charbonneau.

Located 40 light-years away (making it a relatively close neighbor), GJ 1214b has a diameter approximately 2.7 times that of Earth, but weighs almost seven times as much as Earth and has an estimated temperature of 230 degrees Celsius (446°F) .

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) scientist Jacob Bean and colleagues measured the atmosphere of the planet in 2010, concluding that it was mostly made up of water and a recent study using observations from the Hubble Space Telescope supports this theory.

The Hubble Space Telescope (Photo: NASA/ESA)

To establish what the haze surrounding the planet was made up of, an international team of astronomers led by Zachory Berta used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) to study light filtered through the planet's atmosphere during a transit of its parent star. This enabled the scientists to differentiate between a steamy and a hazy atmosphere - in this case it was concluded that GJ 1214b has a dense atmosphere of water vapor.

The planet's density has been calculated at about 2 grams per cubic centimeter, making it less than half as dense as the Earth (5.5 grams per cubic centimeter) which suggests that GJ 1214b has much more water, and less rock, than Earth.

"GJ 1214b is like no planet we know of," Berta said. "A huge fraction of its mass is made up of water."

But this doesn't mean that GJ 1214b is just a watery version of our own world - it's a little weirder than that.

"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," Berta said.

A Paper [PDF] reporting these results has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal and is available online.

And no, there have not been any reported sightings of Kevin Costner on GJ 1214b.

Source: ESA Hubble site

About the Author
Noel McKeegan After a misspent youth at law school, Noel began to dabble in tech research, writing and things with wheels that go fast. This bus dropped him at the door of a freshly sprouted Gizmag.com in 2002. He has been Gizmag's Editor-in-Chief since 2007.   All articles by Noel McKeegan
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10 Comments

Sooo, giant flexible pipe from there to here and we're set for water, right?

Von Meerman
21st February, 2012 @ 09:54 pm PST

am I the only one not getting the Kevin Costner joke ?

Stefan Padureanu
22nd February, 2012 @ 02:25 am PST

Terra is mostly covered by water resulted from the melting of the ice caps.

Kevin Costner fights in such a landscape against the bad guys.

That's more or less the plot of Waterworld (1995).

Rwfield
22nd February, 2012 @ 05:16 am PST

Crazy theory for the day - Earth was created when a 'waterworld' planetary body such as this, or maybe a bit smaller, collided with another rock-based planetary body. The resulting chaos and intense heat forms a planet with water covering solidified rock, floating on a bed of magma. And voila, here we are... just a theory.

PeetEngineer
22nd February, 2012 @ 08:56 am PST

It would be fascinating to see more details about this planet, like an actual image.

I wonder how big a telescope would be needed?

Jon A.
22nd February, 2012 @ 09:07 am PST

re; Stefan Padureanu

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waterworld

I found it to be some what enjoyable once I got past the cheesy non-sense.

Slowburn
22nd February, 2012 @ 12:29 pm PST

If they use our buddy the 'Hubble' that can see billions of lights years away, then why don't they show us images! it's annoying that we see in every instance, an artists impression of the oddity, I think it is odd to us an artist...

Paul Perkins
22nd February, 2012 @ 12:57 pm PST

re; Paul Perkins

'Hubble' sees stars only as dots of light but dots of light that are brighter than most other telescopes. To see surface details of planets at this range would require a telescope with a lens at least several light minutes wide.

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If we were to launch several Ion rocket powered asteroids at this planet and timed it right the very high speed impacts could increase the planets orbital velocity pushing it father away from its star cooling it and reduce its mass lowering its surface acceleration making it nicer for colonization.

Slowburn
22nd February, 2012 @ 02:35 pm PST

Look, the Sahara has plenty of sunshine, solar energy is captured and used in distillation plants, the Sahara is watered and developed. This will capture so called carbon, moisture which has high heat capacity and normalizes temperatures everywhere. Also enormous amounts of water will be transferred from sea to land. If deserts have there moisture, and such a transfer of water occurs from ocean to land, this will result in a significant dent in the rise in sea levels. This is not too ideal, there's plenty of sunshine out there, a commitment can be made.

Dawar Saify
22nd February, 2012 @ 03:27 pm PST

Another movie ref = Solaris (1972, and remake in 2002). A planet covered with a sentient ocean that reads your dreams and makes the people you dream about come alive. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069293/

Adrian Wood
22nd February, 2012 @ 11:42 pm PST
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