Published: Sat, August 03, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Distant 'heavy metal' gas planet is shaped like a football

Distant 'heavy metal' gas planet is shaped like a football

An worldwide team of astronomers has found a distant exoplanet that's being deformed into the shape of a football by the brutal gravitational pull of its host star.

The research paper, "The HST PanCET Program: Exospheric Mg II and Fe II in the Near-UV transmission spectrum of WASP-121b using Jitter Decorrelation", David Sing, Panayotis Lavvas, Gilda Ballester, Alain Lecavelier des Etangs, Mark Marley, Nikolay Nikolov, Lotfi Ben-Jaffel, Vincent Bourrier, Lars Buchhave, Drake Deming, David Ehrenreich, Thomas Evans, Tiffany Kataria, Nikole Lewis, Mercedes López-Morales, Antonio García Muñoz, Gregory Henry, Jorge Sanz-Forcada, Jessica Spake, and Hannah Wakeford, was published in the Astronomical Journal on August 1, 2019.

This artist's illustration shows WASP-121b, a distant world that is losing magnesium and iron gas from its atmosphere. The Exoplanet catalogue number WASP-121b orbiting a sun in the constellation of the aft deck (Puppis) in the southern sky.

WASP-121b doesn't emit loud electric guitar riffs, however, iron and magnesium gas, also known as "heavy metals", are escaping the exoplanet and are heavier than lightweight hydrogen and helium. In addition, the escaping magnesium and iron gas may contribute to the temperature spike, Sing said.

Hubble saw something even stranger: "The observations represent the first time that so-called "heavy metals"- elements heavier than hydrogen and helium - have been spotted escaping from a hot Jupiter, a large, gaseous exoplanet very close to its star", NASA said in a statement on Thursday.

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"There have been heavy metals found in exoplanets before, and we also know they have escaping atmospheres", Sing told Gizmodo. The planet is so dangerously close to its star that its upper atmosphere reaches a blazing 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit, about 10 times greater than any known planetary atmosphere. The planet is so close, in fact, that it is being ripped apart by the star's gravity, giving the planet an oblique football shape. They're as big or bigger than our planet Jupiter, made of mostly gassy hydrogen and helium, and orbit shockingly close to their stars. "In the case of WASP-121b we see Magnesium and Eisengas so far away from the planet that you are not bound by gravity".

Ultraviolet light from the host star, which is brighter and hotter than the Sun, heats the upper atmosphere and helps lead to its escape. The football shape comes from the gravitational tidal forces. The exoplanet is "hotter than hot" due to these heavy metals leaving its atmosphere, instead of condensing into clouds. "It was a surprise, though, to see it so clearly in the data and at such great altitudes so far away from the planet".

Through NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, a team of scientists was able to observe an odd-shaped planet leaking heavy metals into space.

In the past years, NASA sent satellites into space to find other stars and exoplanets that may or may not form solar systems in their attempt to find at least one exoplanet that bears the same characteristics as Earth and could sustain life. Given the extreme conditions on WASP-121b, the scientists were trying to see if the escaping of heavy metal gases was indeed possible.

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