Friday, October 17, 2008

WASP-12b: Hottest Planet Known

Scientists have discovered the hottest planet yet (4000 degrees F), a Jupiter-like near sun that also has the fastest revolution (about 1 earth day), and is closer to its sun (2 million miles) than any planet known.

"WASP-12b is incredibly interesting, because we're at a stage in the study of exoplanets where we're finding new examples all the time," said Don Pollacco of Queen's University in Northern Ireland, who is a project scientist for the SuperWASP (Super Wide Angle Search for Planets) project that discovered WASp-12b. "It was exciting because it was the shortest period and the hottest planet, but I suspect there are even shorter period planets, and hotter planets to come."

WASP-12b is a gaseous planet, about 1.5 times the mass of Jupiter, and almost twice the size.

The planet, which orbits a star 870 light years from Earth, is especially notable because it pushes the bounds of how close planets can ever come to their stars without being destroyed.

"There is a limit because as a planet gets closer to its star, the radiation field gets more and more intense, and at some point that whole planet will be evaporated by its star," Pollacco told "Before, some people thought it was impossible to find planets that had 1-day periods. I think it's so early in the whole subject, and it takes a number of objects before you can start setting limits.

The planet is also so hot that its temperature matches that of some stars. This planet, however, is definitely not a star because its mass isn't nearly large enough for the internal thermonuclear reactions that define stars...

All the information scientists have so far about WASP-12b indicates that this fiery ball cozily circling its star is an odd case. Yet discoveries like this raise the question, are planets like this in fact more common in the universe than planets like Earth?

"Is our solar system the freak, or are these other solar systems the freaks?" Pollacco said. "Who knows? I suspect that for life to evolve as we know it, you have to have a special set of circumstances come together to produce very specific conditions."

It is truly fascinating as we learn about these other planets to note different they are from ours. Most of us just assumed our solar system was typical, a few small rocky planets closer to the sun, gas giants further out, and a few asteroid belts along the way. Now we find planets twice the size of Jupiter wizzing around their sun at a speed that makes Mercury look like it is just poking along. What other mysterious worlds are out there just waiting to be found?

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