Hubble telescope spots new class of planet: a steamy 'waterworld'
The planet GJ 1214b is a watery planet covered in a thick, steamy atmosphere, a new study of Hubble data suggests.
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Hubble watched as GJ 1214b crossed in front of its host star, and the scientists were able to determine the composition of the planet's atmosphere based on how it filtered the starlight.Skip to next paragraph
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"We’re using Hubble to measure the infrared color of sunset on this world," Berta said. "The Hubble measurements really tip the balance in favor of a steamy atmosphere."
Berta and his colleagues report their results online in the Astrophysical Journal.
A watery world
Since astronomers know GJ 1214b's mass and size, they're able to calculate its density, which turns out to be just 2 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc). Earth's density is 5.5 g/cc, while that of water is 1 g/cc.
GJ 1214b thus appears to have much more water than Earth does, and much less rock. The alien planet's interior structure is likely quite different from that of our world.
"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.
GJ 1214b probably formed farther out from its star, where water ice was plentiful, and then migrated in to its current location long ago. In the process, it would have experienced more Earth-like temperatures, but how long this benign phase lasted is unknown, researchers said.
Because GJ 1214b is so close to Earth, it's a prime candidate for study by future instruments. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated to launch in 2018, may be able to get an even better look at the planet's atmosphere, researchers said.
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