A Swiftly Tilting Planet

By: Matthew Battles
July 18, 2010

Artist’s view of extrasolar planet HD209458b, by G. Bacon via NASA & ESA

Space-opera auteurs, fire up your Selectrics! There’s a new planet in the neighborhood, and it’s awesome.

Using the Hubble telescope, astronomers have discovered a “cometary planet” 153 light years from Earth. It’s a gas giant about the size of Jupiter, but a hundred times closer to its star, which it orbits at a mind-numbing speed: once every 3.5 days. Solar wind from the star is ripping the planet’s superheated atmosphere and sending it into space at more than twenty thousand miles per hour — enough force to suck heavy elements like carbon and silicon from the lowest levels of the atmosphere and shape them into a comet-like tail.

You might think a planet so precariously positioned would have a short life span. But Jeffrey Linsky, the University of Colorado astronomer leading the study, says the planet’s atmosphere will take a trillion years to boil entirely away.

Astronomers first discovered the planet in 2003, but couldn’t get a reading on its atmosphere until recently. It’s one of the few known extrasolar planets to transit its star — that is, to pass between its star and our solar system. Light passes through the atmosphere, allowing Hubble’s instruments to measure its composition. As a result, we know more about the atmosphere of this distant world, which goes by the unpronounceable name of HD209458b, than we do about the rate of flow from the blowout of the Deepwater Horizon.

What we don’t know is what a battle between super-intelligent spaceships and the giant, plasma-breathing monsters that inhabit the new planet would look like. That’s where you come in you weavers of amazing worlds! And while you’re working HD209458b into your mythos, give it a new name. Maybe we could call it Glaukos, after the tailed sea god and steersman on the Argos?

— via NASA; Prof. Linsky’s paper on HD209458b appears in the Astrophysical Journal.


Sci-Fi, Uncanny

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