Supersonic winds, rocky rains forecasted on lava planet

Katie Ramirez
November 6, 2020

Scientists have recently found a planet where the rain is rocks, the wind blows faster than the speed of light itself, and the planet is surrounded by magma amounting to over 60 miles deep.

York University scientists led by doctoral student Tue Giang Nguyen were able to study the extreme conditions on the world via cutting-edge computer simulations.

A surface of the burning, warm world, the sea and the atmosphere are all made up of the same element - rock.

However, this scorching temperature is confined only on one side of the planet, while on the other side, the temperature is below minus 200 degrees, which is cold enough to freeze nitrogen.

This artist impression of K2-141b reveals the weather forecast summary from this new study.

Earth has managed to contain all the conditions which are suitable for life, a trait that makes it special among the other planets in our solar system. The world is about half again as big as Earth but orbits so close to its star, which is one class smaller than our own, that it completes several loops each Earth-day with the same surface permanently facing the star. K2-141b orbits 665,000 miles from its orange dwarf host star. It also includes molten lava and falling stones.

The lowest temperature ever recorded by a weather station on Earth was -128 degrees in the Antarctic near the South Pole in 1983, according to the American Geophysical Union.

K2-141b belongs to a subset of rocky planets that orbit very close to their star.

The one side of the planet always faces its host star which results in endless daylight and soaring temperatures that are hot enough to vaporise its rocks.

The extreme heat leads to them undergoing precipitation - as if they were particles of water. It rises in the atmosphere and condenses and falls back to Earth.

On K2-141b, the mineral vapour formed by evaporated rock is swept to the frigid night side by supersonic winds and rocks "rain" back down into a magma ocean. That hot side has an atmosphere made of silicon dioxide, more commonly known as quartz.

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Still, the cycle on K2-141b is not as stable as the one on Earth, say the scientists. The flow of magma ocean from the night side to the day side is slower - researchers predict the mineral composition will change over time, eventually altering the surface and atmosphere of the planet entirely.

Professor Nicolas Cowan of a McGill University said: "All rocky planets, including Earth, started off as molten worlds but then rapidly cooled and solidified".

The next step will be to test if these predictions are correct, say the scientists. The team now has data from the Spitzer Space Telescope that gives the first glimpse into the daytime and nighttime temperatures of their planet.

With the James Webb Space Telescope launching in 2021, they will also be able to verify whether the atmosphere behaves as predicted.

The study was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Here, the sensors on board perform different forms of analysis. Few of them, though, have such molten surfaces that drive such dramatic swings in a planet's weather and structure.

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These lines correspond to a very specific molecule, which indicates it's presence on the planet.

Here, the scientists are upbeat: they call K2-141b "an especially good target for atmospheric observations".

The key is that what is missing, provides the clues to find out what is present. The simple reason for this is because the space telescope that can see K2-141b's atmosphere hasn't been launched yet.

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