Astronomers find a planet so hot it's streaming metals into space

This exoplanet is 10 times hotter than any world we measured and shaped like a football.

Astronomers find a planet so hot it's streaming metals into space

WASP-121b

NASA/ESA/J. Olmsted/STScI
  • Astronomers study the exoplanet planet WASP-121b that's known as a "hot Jupiter."
  • The planet is so hot, metals like iron and magnesium stream off its surface.
  • The find is the latest accomplishment using the Hubble Space Telescope.


For the first time ever, astronomers spotted a planet that is so hot it's leaking heavy metals like iron and magnesium into space. The upper atmosphere of WASP-121b, an exoplanet shaped like a football is 10 times hotter than on any exoplanet we have so far been able to measure.

Astronomers employed NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to gauge of the temperature the unusual space body that's about 900 light-years away from Earth. They found that heavy metals are streaming behind WASP-121b as every 30 hours it orbits its star, which is smaller but hotter than our sun.

A planet like this one, located outside our solar system, has been called a 'hot Jupiter" – a class of giant exoplanets full of mostly hydrogen and helium gas. While physically similar to Jupiter, they have much shorter orbital periods which can be just hours or a few days. They are also close to their stars and feature super-high surface temperatures.

WASP-121b is hot even by hot Jupiter standards. With temperatures of about 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit, the planet is melting metals, which along with lighter materials fly off its surface.

Being near a star with a massive gravitational pull can also warp such a planet. In the case of WASP-121b, its been stretched out to look like a football.

The study of the planet, published in the Astronomical Journal, was led by David Sing of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

"Heavy metals have been seen in other hot Jupiters before, but only in the lower atmosphere," said Sing. "So you don't know if they are escaping or not. With WASP-121b, we see magnesium and iron gas so far away from the planet that they're not gravitationally bound."

Astronomers believe that planets don't start out being hot Jupiters, as it would be hard for them to be formed under such conditions. Instead, they are created elsewhere but over time migrate closer to stars which start pulling away their outer layers. Future tech like the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to tell us much more about these gigantic space fireballs.

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China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

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