Astronomers discover new type of planet – the water world
A watery planet with a thick, steamy atmosphere has left astronomers fumbling for their classification books.
The water world, which has been named GJ1214b, is 2.7 times bigger than earth but weighs almost seven times as much.
GJ1214b orbits a red-dwarf star at a distance of two million kilometres, suggesting temperatures may reach up to 200C.
Astronomers believe the planet is an entirely new classification of celestial body, with the mixture of water and high temperatures meaning there is a chance new alien materials could have been produced.
Previous types of planetary body known to exist include a rocky surface similar to earth, gas giants like Jupiter, and ice giants like Uranus.
Observations of the watery planet’s atmosphere in 2010 suggested that the gases surrounding the entity could simply be a “haze”, similar to that around Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, but follow up studies with the Hubble telescope showed the results were more consistent with it having a water-based make-up. The “super-earth” was initially discovered in 2009 by US scientists working on the MEarth Project.
“GJ 1214b is like no planet we know of. A huge fraction of its mass is made up of water,” said Zachory Berta, lead author of the study from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“The high temperatures and pressures would form exotic materials like ‘hot ice’ or ‘superfluid water’, substances that are completely alien to our everyday experience,” said Dr Berta.
The proximity of the watery planet to earth means follow up observations may be launched by the James Webb Telescope in the next few years.
By Amy Willis, Los Angeles