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The Discovery of a New Alien Planet
Posted In: Space and Astrology  2/21/12
By: Yona Williams

It's not every day that scientists uncover new celestial bodies, but the latest news to hit the headlines is the discovery of a "new type of alien planet" characterized as being larger than Earth but smaller than Uranus. Described as a 'steamy waterworld,' this article will shed light on this exciting turn of events.

Astronomers first happened upon this new class of exoplanet in December 2009, which has been given the name of GJ 1214b. Using the observations delivered from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, GJ 1214b is best described as a watery world surrounded by a thick, steamy atmosphere. The features of this celestial body suggest that the planet is like nothing ever seen before. A great deal of the mass is comprised of water.
In school, students were taught about the nine (now eight) planets in our solar system and that's probably one of the most popular facts known about space. However, astronomers have discovered more than 700 planets located beyond our solar system, and there are around 2,300 potential planets that are awaiting confirmation of 'planet' status after a series of follow-up observations.

Known as 'alien planets,' there is a great deal of diversity amongst the findings. For example, astronomers have found a planet that possesses the same texture and consistency as Styrofoam – light and airy. Another planet is described as being as dense as iron. Several alien planets have been found to orbit two suns. But GJ 1214b is something different. It is located 40 light-years from Earth in the constellation Ophiuchus (also called the Serpent Bearer).  

Some have called the exoplanet a 'super-Earth' that is about 2.7 times the diameter of Earth and weighs close to seven times as much as our home planet. Orbiting a red-dwarf star at a distance of 1.2 million miles gives it an estimated surface temperature of 446 degrees Fahrenheit (or 230 degrees Celsius). These ranges mean that the exoplanet is too hot to sustain life that we are accustomed to.

The first time that GJ 1214b's atmosphere was mentioned to have been comprised of mostly water was in 2010, but scientists could not concretely make such a conclusion. With the help of Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, more information was gathered. Hubble observed that GJ 1214b crossed in front of its host star. Because of this, scientists learned the composition of the planet's atmosphere based on how the starlight was filtered. The measurements of the infrared color of the sunset produced on the planet suggest that the atmosphere is steamy in nature.

Knowing the mass and size of GJ 1241b means that astronomers are able to calculate its density. They estimated it to be 2 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc) compared to the 5.5 g/cc density of Earth. With these calculations, it seems that the exoplanet actually has much more water than Earth does with less rock mass. However, the inside of the exoplanet is most likely different from Earth.  high temperatures and high pressures typically form exotic materials that have been dubbed 'hot ice' and 'superfluid water.' These are substances that people on Earth have never been in contact with.

The results of the report on this exoplanet are reported online in the Astrophysical Journal.


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