On the scorching hot planet, hundreds of light-years away, oceans are made of molten lava, winds reach supersonic speeds and rain is made of rocks. Scientists have referred to the bizarre, hellish exoplanet as one of the most “extreme” ever discovered.
According to a new study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, scientists from McGill University, York University and the Indian Institute of Science Education have uncovered details of one of the newest “lava planets” — a world that so closely orbits its host star that much of it is composed of flowing lava oceans.
Scientists found the atmosphere and weather cycle of K2-141b to be particularly bizarre. The Earth-sized exoplanet appears to have a surface, ocean and atmosphere all made of the same ingredients: rocks.
“The study is the first to make predictions about weather conditions on K2-141b that can be detected from hundreds of light-years away with next-generation telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope,” lead author Giang Nguyen said in a news.
While analyzing the planet’s illumination pattern, scientists found that about two-thirds of the planet experiences perpetual daylight. K2-141b’s close proximity to its star gravitationally locks it in place — meaning the same side always faces the star.
This scorching hot part of the planet reaches temperatures of over 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s hot enough to not only melt rocks but also vaporize them, creating a thin, inhospitable atmosphere.
“Our finding likely means that the atmosphere extends a little beyond the shore of the magma ocean, making it easier to spot with space telescopes,” said co-author Nicolas Cowan.
The rest of the planet is cloaked in never-ending darkness, reaching frigid temperatures of negative 328 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Earth’s water cycle, water evaporates, rises up into the atmosphere, condenses, and returns to the surface as rain. Now imagine that process, but instead of water, K2-141b only has rocks to work with.
The sodium, silicon monoxide, and silicon dioxide on K2-141b evaporate into mineral vapor, which is carried to the dark side of the planet by supersonic winds that rage over 3,100 miles per hour. From there, rocks “rain” back down into the 60-mile-deep magma ocean, which flows to the bright side to restart the cycle.
However, this cycle is not as stable as the one on Earth, scientists said. The flow of magma ocean from the night side to the dayside is slower — researchers predict the mineral composition will change over time, eventually altering the surface and atmosphere of the planet entirely.
“All rocky planets, including Earth, started off as molten worlds but then rapidly cooled and solidified. Lava planets give us a rare glimpse at this stage of planetary evolution,” Cowan said.
Scientists hope to further verify their observations when the highly-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2021.