If it seems like it has been a hellish week here on Earth, it could be worse — we could be on K2-141b, a lava planet with some of the most extreme weather ever discovered. A new study suggests this planet is so hot that rocks can evaporate and rain back down onto the surface and it buffeted by winds of over 3,000 miles per hour.
Astronomers from McGill University used computer modeling to identify likely conditions on the extreme planet, which is roughly the same size as Earth and which orbits extremely close to its orange dwarf star. Like Earth, it has a surface, ocean, and atmosphere, but unlike Earth, all three of these are made from the same material on K2-141b: Rock.
As the planet orbits so close to its star, the star exerts a great deal of gravitational pull on the planet. That means the planet is kept in place and always has the same side facing the star. This is called being tidally locked, and it results in extreme conditions. One side of the planet is estimated to have a surface temperature of 3,000 degrees Celsius, hot enough to melt rocks, which the other side is -200 degrees Celsius.
The extreme heat on the dayside of the planet means that the sodium, silicon monoxide, and silicon dioxide which forms the rocks on the surface is evaporated into the atmosphere before condensing and falling back to the surface as rain, just like what happens with water here on Earth. The mineral vapor is carried to the planet’s nightside by extreme winds, where is rapidly cools and “rains” down into a magma ocean.
The planet isn’t just an oddity. The study also demonstrates how cutting-edge astronomical tools can be used to examine exoplanets in more detail than ever before.“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 statement.
And the study could give clues to the origin of other planets as well. “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,” said co-author Professor Nicolas Cowan.
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