What do alien worlds look like? Perhaps the landscapes are filled with exotic biota, fields of purple grass and towering, freakish animals. Perhaps 4-eyed critters scamper about and 6-winged birds soar across the skies. Sadly, Avatar-like worlds are likely not the case.
As fascinating as such a planet sounds, the reality is, most planets are lifeless hellscapes, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting.
Take planet K2-141b for example. As stated in their paper published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, scientists from McGill University, York University, and the Indian Institute of Science Education describe this particular heavenly body as, well, not so heavenly. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Dubbed the “Hell Planet”, K2-141b is not a place you’d want to spend your vacation, or any amount of time for that matter.
How about a weather forecast? Winds will be reaching speeds of 3,100 miles per hour, and, like England, it will be raining most of the time; but unlike England, it will be raining rocks.
A phenomena like this is made possible by the planet’s extremely close orbit to it’s native star, an orbit so close that the gravitational pull maintains K2-141b in a static, orbital position. Much like our moon, one side is permanently fixated.
So, the end result of this is a planet with a blisteringly high temperature of 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit on one side (the side facing the sun, of course), and an ice cold temperature of -328 degrees Fahrenheit on the other side.
This horrendous planetary predicament produces a cycle not unlike the water cycle here on Earth. The hot side is heated to the point where sodium, silicon monoxide and silicon dioxide minerals are evaporated into the atmosphere. Supersonic winds then push this gaseous, rocky mixture all the way across the planet to the dark side, where the much cooler temperatures condense the minerals back into their original form. The minerals rain down in the form of solid rocks, falling into the lava oceans which take the rocks back over to the hot side. The terrifying cycle then begins anew.
Wait, hold on a second; lava oceans?
Yes, this planet wouldn’t be much of a hellscape if it weren’t covered in piping hot, incredibly deadly, lava oceans.
A characteristic shared by many proto-planets, K2-141b’s lava oceans, as well as it’s other diabolical features, offer a unique insight into what planets were like before they became more settled.
“All rocky planets, including Earth, started off as molten worlds but then rapidly cooled and solidified. Lava planets give us a rare glimpse at this stage of planetary evolution,” said co-author of the paper Nicolas Cowan.
Don’t like the sound of K2-141b? I don’t blame you. Something about solid rocks raining down from the sky makes me feel just a bit apprehensive. But what if those rocks were diamonds?
According to Dr Kevin Baines, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the theory is that Jupiter and Saturn rain over 1000 tonnes of diamonds every year. This dazzling circumstance is due to extreme lightning storms that turn methane into soot. As the soot falls, the extreme pressures of the planet form the soot into graphite sheets, and finally into diamonds.
Well, not necessarily ‘finally’.
“Diamonds aren’t forever on Saturn and Jupiter.” Said Baines.
Once the graphite has assumed it’s diamond form, it still has over 30,000 kilometers to go, the equivalent of two and a half Earth diameters. As one could imagine, the pressure and temperature will get higher and higher as the diamonds approach the core. This, in turn, could possibly melt the diamonds into a liquid carbon sea.
But all of this, is of course, a theory.
“It’s very uncertain what happens to carbon down there.” Said Baines.
BBC interviewed Dr. Nadine Nettelmann of the University of California, Santa Cruz, to ascertain whether Baine’s outlandish theories are as credible as his credentials.
“Baines and Delitsky considered the data for pure carbon, instead of a carbon-hydrogen-helium mixture,” she clarified.
“We cannot exclude the proposed scenario (diamond rain on Saturn and Jupiter) but we simply have no data on mixtures in the planets. So we do not know if diamond formation occurs at all.”