If life on Earth sounded like a dystopia at certain points this year, it’s nothing when compared to the conditions on K2-142b, an exoplanet (a planet which orbits around another star, rather than the Sun) discovered in 2018. While astronomers have been aware of K2-142b for 2 years now, an extensive scientific study of this newfound exoplanet has only recently been published and the findings are quite striking - in fact, K2-141b is one of the most extreme places ever discovered.
Because K2-141b orbits its star so closely, it is defined as a “lava planet”, meaning the majority of it is composed of lava oceans. However, there is something else that sets this particular planet apart and makes it so unusual, according to researchers from McGill University, York University, and the Indian Institute of Science Education. The Earth-sized K2-141b appears to have a surface, ocean, and atmosphere all made of the same ingredient: rock. And this makes for some pretty bizarre weather conditions.
It appears that two-thirds of the planet faces constant daylight, which is owed to the fact that it's gravitationally locked in place thanks to its proximity to its host star. The other side faces never-ending darkness. While the temperature on the night side is agonizingly cold - 200°C (-328°F) - the scorching hot dayside can reach a shocking temperature of 3000°C (5432 F°). It's hot enough to not only melt rocks but also to vaporize them.
The vapor then turns into precipitation, just like the water cycle on Earth. The rock vapor rises up into the atmosphere and is then swept up by high winds over to the night side of K2-141b. This rock vapor then returns to the surface in the form of rain. The result is, well, a rain of rocks that falls into the 60-mile-deep magma ocean, which in turn, flows to the bright side, and the cycle begins all over again.
Only this cycle is not as stable as the one here on Earth. The flow of the lava ocean from one side to the other is slower, and researchers predict that over time, it will alter the shape and the atmosphere of the exoplanet completely.
"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 the study’s co-author Nicolas Cowan.
The team is currently working on validating those predictions using data from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Once the new James Webb Space Telescope is launched in 2021, they should be able to further solidify their predictions regarding K2-141b’s atmospheric cycle. There is no doubt that the more we discover about the universe, the more we realize how extraordinary nature is, and the unexpected potential it holds.
If you found this article interesting, pass it on and share it with family and friends