Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Watery Exoplanet Discovered!

Hubble Telescope scientists are reporting the discovery of a new class of expolanet--a water world. Planet GJ1214b is larger than Earth but smaller than Uranus (tee hee!) and orbits a red dwarf star. From Hubblesite.org:
They found the spectrum of GJ1214b to be featureless over a wide range of wavelengths, or colors. The atmospheric model most consistent with the Hubble data is a dense atmosphere of water vapor.

"The Hubble measurements really tip the balance in favor of a steamy atmosphere," Berta said.

Since the planet's mass and size are known, astronomers can calculate the density, of only about 2 grams per cubic centimeter. Water has a density of 1 gram per cubic centimeter, while Earth's average density is 5.5 grams per cubic centimeter. This suggests that GJ1214b has much more water than Earth does, and much less rock.

As a result, the internal structure of GJ1214b would be an extraordinarily different world than 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.

Theorists expect that GJ1214b formed farther out from its star, where water ice was plentiful, and migrated inward early in the system's history. In the process, it would have passed through the star's habitable zone, where surface temperatures would be similar to Earth's. How long it lingered there is unknown.

GJ1214b is located in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus, and just 40 light-years from Earth. Therefore, it's a prime candidate for study by the planned James Webb Space Telescope.
So a few important items to note here beyond the facts and figures.

1: At first glance it appears that the intense atmospheric pressure could be hostile to most life on Earth, but if you recall, we've found microbes, worms, and other simple organisms thriving in heat vents on the ocean floor, so anything is possible.

2: Hubble is still a relevent and extraordinary piece of equipment for finding planets--and not just an instrument for deep space only missions. It's a shame that its life expectancy won't be lengthened, but it's nice to know that the exoplanet work carried out by the James Webb Telescope can earmark GJ1214b for future study.

Bonus excersise: If life does exist on this steamy, high-pressure world, what form do you think it takes? Feel free to speculate in the comments....

Read the full article on Hubblesite.org.


  1. Riddle of the Space Sphinx: What is larger than Earth, yet smaller than Uranus?

  2. My cardinal rule for Science Fiction world design in games...

    Assume that anything you read or saw in a Sci-Fi book, TV show, cartoon or movie is accurate and what most scientists currently believe is possible is false.

    I remember sooo many science books and teachers when I was growing up saying, "Water can only exist under such-and-such slim conditions" and "Unlike Star Trek or Star Wars, there would never really be an all desert planet or an all snow planet or an all water planet."

    How do you know? How many other planets have you been to?

  3. "When X-plorers first arrived in orbit around GJ1214b they where expecting life, some form at least, but what they found was utterly shocking. GJ1214b, now called Flash Point, was inhabited by a strange race of sapient synthetic life created by what the species called, the Over-Binary. Flash Point's synthetic life forms called themselves the Under-Binary and believed that they where made in the Over-Binary's image, that of a crystalline anthropomorphic humanoid. The Under-Binary had for several centuries been constructing cities on the vast floating salt beds of Flash Point. These City-States where ruled by elaborate forms of hierarchy based on the number of crystal facets a Under-Binary had, the more Facets the higher ranked.

    The government as a whole was very theocratic with members of the highest orders being similar to King-Priests. The Under-Binaries have a very intense respect for life and freedom, being that they cannot replicate themselves. Under-Binary languages are based of a 128 bit binary code. X-plorers, where able to quickly develop translators for the Under-Binaries, and with in weeks, trade was established.

    The Under-Binaries are very curious about the rest of the universe and because of their synthetic origins are very capable computer scientist. Under-Binaries see robots used by many other species of the galaxy as cousins and attempt to "uplift" any robot they come across.

    Above all else the Under-Binaries are awaiting the return of their "god" the Over-Binary, it is believed that when he returns he will give the Under-Binaries the secret of replication, something the Under-Binaries desire very much."

    ATT: 1d6/1d6 (or by Weapon)

    Under-Binaries can fire two powerful heat ray attacks from their "hands" once every two rounds. If a Under-Binary attempts to use the Heat Rays in a consecutive round he must make a save or fall into a comatose state for 1d4 rnds, while his "system, reboots".

    Under-Binaries have the ability to regenerate wounds, however this regeneration will not re grow limbs, and causes a blackening or their bodies.

    Under-Binaries have Dark Vision.