‘Hell’ planet found with lava oceans, rocky rain and supersonic winds

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Scientists have identified a planet where the oceans are lava, the raindrops are rocks, the winds are supersonic, and the politics are non-existent.

It’s been dubbed a “hell planet” but some might prefer it to the insanity of Earth in 2020, especially in the middle of a global pandemic and political unrest in the United States.

The exoplanet, called K2-141b, is one of the most extreme worlds ever found, according to a Canadian-authored paper published Tuesday in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. It’s larger than Earth, 202 light-years away and rockier than you could possibly imagine. Everything, including the air, has rock in it.

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The paper describes an intensely polarized world that would turn you into cinders or a block of ice, depending on which side you visited. It’s also partly covered by a huge magma ocean, though it might be possible to get to solid high ground — if you could survive the temperatures.

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The planet is tidally locked to its nearby star, meaning one side is always a sizzling 3,000 degrees Celsius in daylight, while the other is eternally shrouded in darkness and frigid -200-degree Celsius temperatures.

The day side is so hot that it causes rock — like the rocks on Earth — to evaporate. This rock vapour collects over the lava ocean into a thin atmosphere, then swirls toward the night side on winds that blow at over 5,000 kilometres per hour, according to the paper.

The rock vapour eventually cools and condenses into rock-drops that fall back into the ocean, researchers say.

It’s basically a hardcore version of the water cycle on Earth.

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Astronomers have known about the planet since 2018, but a Canadian team used illumination patterns to learn more about its surface and weather.

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“Our finding likely means that the atmosphere extends a little beyond the shore of the magma ocean, making it easier to spot with space telescopes,” co-author Nicolas Cowan of McGill University told CBS News.

Cowan and his fellow researchers say the planet’s atmosphere is likely a mix of evaporated sodium, silicon monoxide and silicon dioxide. All of those materials can be found in solid form on Earth, especially silicon dioxide, which forms the vast majority of rocks on our planet.

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“The study is the first to make predictions about weather conditions on K2-141b that can be detected from hundreds of light years away with next-generation telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope,” lead author Giang Nguyen said in a news release.

The study was a joint effort by astronomers at McGill University and York University in Canada, along with the Indian Institute of Science and Education.

The researchers’ findings provoked a flurry of Star Wars jokes on Twitter, where many dubbed the planet “Mustafar.”

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Mustafar is the lava planet where Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Anakin loses a lightsaber fight (and the high ground) to his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, then suffers critical burns from the lake of lava. The pivotal moment has become a popular meme in recent years.

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Researchers say they’re looking forward to collecting more data on the planet next year, once the James Webb Space Telescope comes online.

They suspect the planet is in a state of flux, and will eventually take a different form due to the intense and erratic patterns on its surface.

That means it’ll probably be a little more hospitable in the distant future — or perhaps just hospitable enough for a very dangerous lightsaber fight.

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