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SYFY WIRE Exoplanets

This Mustafar-like lava exoplanet boasts brutal supersonic winds and vaporized rock

By Jeff Spry
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Exoplanets, those mysterious worlds in the Milky Way that orbit stars outside our solar system, come in all sizes and flavors, from those potentially made of diamonds to planets that feature downpours of toxic iron rain. So far, NASA has identified more than 4,000 of these distant exotic destinations through various methods, some of which are extremely Earth-like and could possibly be capable of supporting life.

On the opposite end of the scale from temperate, habitable planets at the "Goldilocks" just-right zone, we present to you the hostile lava world of K2-141b and its insane atmosphere of vaporized rock, savage, supersonic winds, and massive rocky glaciers.

Now scientists have created detailed weather simulations for this radical planet in a new research paper from McGill University, York University, and the Indian Institute of Science Education published in the online journal the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Originally discovered in 2017, K2-141b is approximately 50% larger than our Big Blue Marble but orbits its star KT-141 much closer, and revolves around it several times each Earth-day with one side constantly facing the blazing solar host.  

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According to the investigation, the research team believes that this fixed positioning results in two-thirds of K2-141b being drenched in glaring perpetual sunlight, causing boiling lava oceans and evaporated rock to escape into the atmosphere. 

"All rocky planets­, including Earth, started off as molten worlds but then rapidly cooled and solidified," said Professor Nicolas Cowan, a planetary scientist at Canada's McGill University and a co-author on the new study. "Lava planets give us a rare glimpse at this stage of planetary evolution."

In an attempt to discern what specific style of atmosphere this roasting exoplanet might exhibit, scientists targeted K2-141b since it was previously scrutinized by the K2 mission of NASA's Kepler Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Subjected to this level of penetrating sunlight, the world's Mustafar-like magma oceans could theoretically be tens of miles deep.


By carefully modeling the nature of K2-141b's atmosphere by utilizing characteristics of similar rocky planets in their formula, scientists estimated that its kite-ripping wind blasts could exceed speeds of 3,900 miles per hour!  

Just like Earth's water cycle where evaporated H2O rises, condenses, and returns back down as rain, the sodium, silicon monoxide, and silicon dioxide of K2-141b would fall to the surface lava oceans as measurable precipitation.

“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,” says lead author Giang Nguyen, a PhD student at York University working under Professor Cowan's supervision.

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While waiting for next year's launch of the new James Webb Space Telescope, whose instruments could provide even more details on K2-141b, scientists involved in the project have recently obtained a wealth of Spitzer Space Telescope observations that contain more precise data to help calculate temperatures for the toasty exoplanet's day and night sides.