Thursday, September 28, 2017

Weird Planets 5

Now we begin exploring the exo-planets that only appeared on 2 of the 4 lists. Does it seem like this series will never end? Cheer up; the process will get faster. The fewer lists that contained a particular planet, the less information I have to pass on to you. I’d like to get through several planets today, so let’s get started.

Earth Jr is only 20 light years away. It’s official name is Gliese 581d. Actually, there may be 2 planets around the same star, but only 581d is mentioned on both lists. 581g was a ‘shiny thing’ that briefly appeared in the same paragraph on the first list.

Gliese 581 is a red dwarf star located in the Libra constellation, and 581d sits on the outer edge of the Goldilocks zone, so it would be possible for water there to be liquid. In addition, the atmosphere produces a significant greenhouse effect, making it even more hospitable for life (more or less) as we know it. It is, however, 8 times the mass of Earth, so do you think any creatures living there would be Big and Strong? Or Short and Strong? I can’t decide, myself, and I assume it would depend - at least in part - on the biochemistry of the creatures.

If it exists, Gliese 581g sits in the middle of that same habitable zone. Some research says it does exist, other research says it doesn’t. This is only 20 light years away, so let’s go find out, shall we?

WASP-18b is 325 light years away. But since we don’t yet have light-speed travel, we aren’t likely to get there before it dies. Some scientists think it should have already died, before we ever got a glimpse of it. WASP-18b races around its sun in less than 24 hours, but its orbit is apparently degrading, so it’s getting closer and closer to its sun, and in 1 million years (or less?), it will plunge into that star.

WASP-12b is 870 light-years from us. I don’t think we’ll want to settle there, for it is rather warm - 4000°F or 2250°C. It sits only 2 million miles from its sun (Earth is 93 million miles from our sun), and takes just over 1 Earth day to make a complete orbit of that star. It’s also a gaseous planet, with 1.5 times the mass of Jupiter and about twice Jupiter’s size. Obviously, it’s less dense than Jupiter, right? So, even less chance that in all that gas there would be anyplace solid to build a new home. And can you imagine the air conditioning bill?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Weird Planets 4

TrES-2b is called the Dark World. Sounds like a world Sith Lords would be attracted to, right? It’s a gas giant the size of Jupiter. And it is black, to match the Sith Lords’ hearts.

Dark World is 750 light years from us. It orbits its star at a mere 3 million miles (Earth is 93 million miles from the sun), but TrES-2b is darker than pure coal or the blackest paint. It turns out that the Dark World reflects only 1% of the light that falls on it. So as we approached it, we’d see a black ball of gas, possibly with a slight red glow to it, according to one scientist.

Why is it so dark? Nobody knows, but there are some theories:

1. It has no reflective clouds due to its high temperature. All the gas giants in our system have plenty of clouds, so they reflect quite a bit of light. But a gas giant without clouds? Would that make it transparent? I’m thinking it is highly unlikely that the only gases making up any planet are clear. Iodine gas is dark purple, nitrogen dioxide is dark brown, and Trifluoronitrosomethane (I have no idea what this is or how it’s made, but apparently it’s a gas) is deep blue. That doesn’t get us to black, but what I’m saying is, How would it manage to be absolutely clear? I suppose if it was clear, most of the light would go through it and come out the other side.

But, even without a rocky core, the deeper the light goes into the gas giant, the more gravity it is subjected to. I remember from physics classes that light has properties of both waves and particles, so I’m thinking the light would get bent as it traveled through. Would that act as a prism and produce a rainbow as it came out the other side? Would we be able to see such an effect from here? I don’t know. That is a long distance, and there’s no atmosphere (to speak of) between us and it to let us see any such rainbow.

2. The dark world’s atmosphere contains chemicals that absorb light. My resident chemist being out of the house right now, I tried to google what chemicals might do that. Chlorophyll and other organic compounds absorb light, but they usually specialize. Around 2015, some biochemists learned to manipulate cholorophyll’s atomic structure so it would absorb different colors, and they got the entire range of visible light absorbed. Their inspiration was nature; a tiny creature called a sea squirt had bacteria and microbes that - between them - absorbed every bit of visible light that hit the squirt. So I suppose this is possible, but wouldn’t the planet need to be totally covered in varieties of cholorophyll, which is an organic substance. My resident chemist says that ‘organic doesn’t necessarily mean it has anything to do with life.’ Well, on Earth, cholorophyll is found in plants, bacteria and microbes, so it looks like cholorophyll has something to do with life here. Would the same be true for The Dark World?

3. It has a chemical we haven’t thought of yet. This one also seems mildly possible. I find it very difficult to comment on it, because if we haven’t even thought of this chemical, how would we have any idea what its properties are?

4. I think The Dark World is made of Dark Matter. I know, I know, Dark Matter can’t be seen, and we can (barely) see the Dark World. Maybe it’s got a bit of regular matter mixed in. I don’t really know much about Dark Matter (not enough physics classes recently), it just sounds really cool. And really, really dark. Like the Dark World!

So, which theory do you like? Now, using that theory, imagine a story where humans arrive at The Dark World to explore. It is, apparently, one of a kind. Or at least, weird.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Weird Planets 3

GJ 1214b is another exoplanet that I found on 3 of the 4 lists. Some have nicknamed it ‘Waterworld’ since its discovery in December of 2009. It orbits a red dwarf star some 40-42 light years from us and is a ‘super Earth’, a planet whose mass is between Earth and Neptune. It is triple the size of Earth, but its mass is about 6.5 Earths.

Waterworld - as you might guess - is probably covered in water, reaching depths far deeper than Earth’s oceans. It is assumed to have a solid core, but the lists disagree about that core. One assumed the core would be made of rock, one simply said the core was ‘solid’, and the third stated that with an ocean that deep, the pressure and cold could have formed a core made of different forms of ice.

The depths of this ocean might be frigid, but not the atmosphere, which it definitely has. This planet’s air is described as ‘thick’ and ‘steamy’. It is thought to be home to water in a medley of phases, such as steam, liquid, and plasma. Maybe even ice, down in the core region. Another scientist said that Waterworld’s high temperatures and high pressures could form some exotic materials, such as ‘hot ice’ or ‘superfluid water’.

The possibility of ‘exotic forms of water’ makes me think of an episode from the original series of Star Trek. Small bits of a freakish form of water would ‘infect’ people and make them behave as if they were drunk, even to the point of committing suicide. For most of the episode, Dr McCoy and his team could not figure out what had gotten into the victims... all the tests just considered this stuff water. But in the end, of course, they got it figured out and devised an antidote. There was a very similar episode in ST The Next Generation.

Hmm. I wonder if ‘Waterworld’s ocean consists of salt water, or something more closely resembling fresh water. If the only thing solid is the core - which at the very least might well be covered in ice, if not composed of ice - then where would it get any salt?

And if the ocean is fresh water, what are the chances that it managed to produce any life? Probably not life as we know it, because we need a whole bunch of stuff besides the hydrogen and oxygen found in water. Stuff like iron, carbon and potassium, just to name a few.

Now, let’s all think about this and try to figure out how plain water might manage to create living creatures. And when we’re done with that, let’s tackle the intelligence question.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Weird Planets 2

I did find some exoplanets listed on more than one list. But none of them showed up on all 4 lists! So much for ‘Weird is weird.’

The first one we’ll look at is 55 Cancri e, which somebody has nicknamed ‘The Diamond Planet. It is only 40 light-years from us, and one list says it is worth about $26.9 nonillion ($26.9 followed by 29 zeroes). None of the other planets on these lists come with a price tag, so why does this one? Because they figure about 1/3 of its surface is made of diamonds. It is only twice the size of Earth, but it is almost 8 times denser than Earth. There must be something there that is denser than Earth’s rocky core. There is speculation that it has a ‘weird’ chemistry from what we know on Earth, and that it might consist of graphite and other forms of carbon.

So why would so much of it be made of diamond? Diamonds are carbon that is exposed to high temperatures and intense pressure over time. And 55 Cancri e has plenty of both! Despite its size, it orbits its sun closely, about 1/25th the distance from our sun to Mercury. At that distance, its ‘year’ is 18 hours long, and it is tidally locked, meaning the same face of the planet is always pointed at its sun. On that sunny side of the planet, the temperature could be about 3900 degrees F. Plenty hot, I would think. And as dense as it is, anything that is not actually laying on the surface would soon find itself squeezed so hard, its molecules get really up close and personal. If that item was mostly carbon, that pressure and heat would produce a diamond.

So far, 3 of the lists agree about it, but the NASA list included some thoughts about it that the others didn’t. It has been proposed that 55 Cancri e has a rocky core surrounded by a layer of water in a ‘supercritical’ state where it is both liquid and gas. It is also thought this planet is topped by a blanket of steam.

Does that negate the idea of a big chunk of it being diamond? I don’t know. NASA didn’t mention graphite, carbon or diamonds. Yes, the name on each list is 55 Cancri e; I double and triple checked. I suppose all 3 lists could be right, but those who compiled the lists only mentioned the tidbits of information that they found fascinating. What do you think?