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WASP-12b: Shine on you crazy diamond planet

December 8, 2010 2 comments

Artist's concept of a carbon planet with a tar covered surface. A meteor impact has exposed a diamond layer in the planet's interior. For permission to reproduce this figure, please contact Lynette R. Cook, lynette@spaceart.org. Credit: Lynette Cook (extrasolar.spaceart.org)

In this artist's concept of a tar-covered carbon planet, a meteor impact has exposed a diamond layer in the planet's interior. For permission to reproduce this figure, please contact Lynette R. Cook at lynette@spaceart.org. Credit: Lynette Cook (extrasolar.spaceart.org)

“There is no use trying, said Alice; one can’t believe impossible things. I dare say you haven’t had much practice, said the Queen. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

This just in from our Department of Impossible Things: carbon-soaked planets harboring rock formations glittering with diamonds instead of quartz or other silicate minerals common on Earth. Imagine dark gray plains of graphite. Bubbling pools of tar. A smoggy methane atmosphere.

Scientists today report using the Spitzer Space Telescope to discover the carbon-rich recipe of a previously known exoplanet called WASP-12b. A press release today from Jet Propulsion Laboratory has more details:

Astronomers have discovered that a huge, searing-hot planet orbiting another star is loaded with an unusual amount of carbon. The planet, a gas giant named WASP-12b, is the first carbon-rich world ever observed. The discovery was made using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, along with previously published ground-based observations.

Here at Goddard, exoplanet researcher Marc Kuchner received the news with barely concealed glee. In years past, his work contributed to establishing the hypothetical existence of carbon planets. The WASP-12b observations confirm it.

The implications are exotic. Weird things happen when the ratio of carbon to oxygen in a planetary system crosses the tipping point — that being a ratio greater than 1 to 1.

“When the relative amount of carbon gets that high, it’s as though you flip a switch, and everything changes,” Kuchner explains. “Everything would be different — like imagine, one day you’re a Yankees fan, the next day, Red Sox.”

WASP-12b is a gas giant, so its carbon-rich creations swirl within oceans of dense atmosphere. But what about terrestrial (i.e., rocky) carbon planets? Now it gets mighty interesting.

“If something like this had happened on Earth when it was formed,” Kuchner says, “your expensive engagement ring would be made of glass, which would be rare, because the atmosphere would be made of smog and the mountains would all be made of diamonds.”

artist concept of beta pic planetary system

Artist’s conception of the dust and gas disk surrounding the star Beta Pictoris. A giant planet may have already formed and terrestrial planets may be forming. The inset panels show two possible outcomes for mature terrestrial planets around Beta Pic. The top one is a water-rich planet similar to the Earth; the bottom one is a carbon-rich planet, with a smoggy, methane-rich atmosphere similar to that of Titan, a moon of Saturn. A team led by Aki Roberge of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center first presented the observation in the June 8, 2006, issue of Nature. Credit: NASA/FUSE/Lynette Cook


Kuchner says he thought initially carbon planets would probably be found in exotic stellar environs, like planetary systems whirling around pulsars or white dwarf stars. “But WASP 12 seems to be a pretty normal star, similar to the sun. If it could happen there, it could have happened here. And now that we know WASP-12b is a carbon planet. I bet we’ll start finding others.”

Well, that sounds familiar. In the early days of exoplanet discovery, we found “hot Jupiters,” gas giant planets orbiting shockingly close to their host stars. They seemed exotic until we started finding them all over the place. Now it’s “another day, another hot Jupiter.”

So perhaps carbon-rich planets won’t seem so strange someday, too. Case in point: a star called Beta Pictoris. Kuchner says Beta Pic is “mostly quite similar to the sun, but which has a planetary system and a disk around it that’s carbon rich. Not just a little carbon rich. It has nine times as much carbon as oxygen.  That’s even more carbon-rich than WASP-12b.”

We can only imagine what a planet might look like in such a carbon-mad place. We may never know, but it’s fun to wonder. The WASP-12b discovery gives us permission. “People sort of didn’t take the carbon planets idea seriously at first,” Kuchner says, “but this changes things.”


image of beta pic dust diskRIGHT:  This image of the circumstellar disk around Beta Pictoris shows (in false colors) the light reflected by dust around the young star at infrared wavelengths. The Beta Pic disk is very likely an infant solar system in the process of forming terrestrial planets. Credit: Jean-Luc Beuzit, et al. Grenoble Observatory, European Southern Observatory
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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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That Was The Week That Was, August 22-27, 2010. . . A Digest of Goddard People, Science, & Media, PLUS Historical Tidbits and Our Best Stuff in the Blogpodcastotwittersphere

SUNDAY AUGUST 22: Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles and other classics, was born this day 100 years ago in Waukegan, Illinois.

The rockets came like drums, beating in the night. The rockets came like locusts, swarming and settling in blooms of rosy smoke. And from the rockets ran men with hammers in their hands to beat the strange world into a shape that was familiar to the eye, to bludgeon away all the strangeness, their mouths fringed with nails so they resembled steel-toothed carnivores, spitting them into their swift hands as they hammered up frame cottages and scuttled over roofs with shingles to blot out the eerie stars, and fit green shades to pull against the night.


MONDAY AUGUST 23: The MODIS Image of the Day shows a plankton bloom off Greenland.

Planet pulverizers: A research team including Goddard’s Marc Kuchner finds evidence of planet-destroying collisions in another star system!

Dog days of summer: On What On Earth, bloggers Patrick Lynch and Adam Voiland of NASA’s Earth Science News Team discuss the warm and erratic summer weather.

Better luck next time: On this day in 1961, Ranger 1 launched. When the experimental satellite separated from its Agena booster stage it went into a low Earth orbit and began tumbling. The satellite re-entered Earth’s atmosphere a week later, on August 30, 1961

Awesomely: Featured in Blueshift’s Weekly Awesomeness Round Up: solar sail, sunspots, special shuttle launch, space colonies, and other highlights in space science and astronomy.


satellite image of hurricane katrina

TUESDAY AUGUST 24: Goddard marks the 5-year anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe:  The Scientific Visualization Studio provides a satellite-eye view of the tempest. See a Katrina Flickr gallery by Public Affairs photo maven Rebecca Roth. Meanwhile, gogblog asks Goddard researcher Siegfried Schubert how supercomputers are improving hurricane forecasting. And Discovery News blogger Michael Reilly comments on the Goddard satellite visualization about Katrina.

This year’s model: Here’s how to build a life-size mock-up of the James Webb Space Telescope.


photo of launch of spitzer space telescopeWEDNESDAY AUGUST 25: Satellite imagery featured today: dust storms in Afghanistan and Pakistan and how satellites can help archeologists preserve hidden cultural treasures.

Koji says: Take a tour of the international observatory on the island of La Palma with NASA Blueshift blogger Koji Mukai.

Hail to the chief. . . of the Goddard Astrochemistry Laboratory, Jason Dworkin, in a new video profile.

Go Spitzer! On this day in 2003, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) launched into orbit. One of the quartet of NASA Great Observatories, SIRTF was renamed the Spitzer Space Telescope and continues to push the frontiers of space-based astronomy.


robonaut_202THURSDAY AUGUST 26: Earth Observatory spotlights satellite view of fires raging in South America.

FRIDAY AUGUST 27: On this day in 1962, Mariner 2 left for Venus, to become the first spaceship from Earth to visit another planet.

Space rocks: NASA and U2 released a commemorative video highlighting a year’s worth of collaboration in space and on the Irish rock band’s 360 Degree tour.

I, Robonaut! NASA’s humanoid astronaut buddy is being prepared for its history making launch to the International Space Station on STS-133.

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Featured space art: the planet pulverizers of RS Canum Venaticorums, as imagined by visual effects artist Tim Pyle

“. . . now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Or if Death isn’t handy, exoplanet scientists have discovered the next best thing: planetary collisions.

A team of scientists — including Goddard’s own Marc Kuchner — have used data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to discover what may be pulverized planets around another star. That’s right — debris from planets that collided and were possibly destroyed in the process. If you want to read all about the science, go to today’s excellent press release by our friends at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Me, I’d like to talk about the pretty pictures. “Pictures” literally, wonderful pieces of space art by visual effects artist Tim Pyle. If you have seen any significant amount of Spitzer related stories and other news emanating from JPL, you probably have seen Pyle’s work. I give you his two latest portraits below.

If you’ve seen “Jimmy Neutron,” you’ve seen Pyle’s animation. (Jimmy Neutron was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.) He also worked on “Starship Troopers: the Series,” as well as “Children of Dune.”

NASA is fortunate to be able to draw on such Hollywood-class talent to bring to life the weird and wonderful worlds that exoplanet scientists are discovering.

B_Destroyer_BinaryDisk_650

Circle of Planetary Ashes: This artist’s concept illustrates a tight pair of stars and a surrounding disk of dust — most likely the shattered remains of planetary smashups. Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the scientists found dusty evidence for such collisions around three sets of stellar twins (a class of stars called RS Canum Venaticorum’s or RS CVns for short). The stars, which are similar to our sun in mass and age, orbit very closely around each other. They are separated by just two percent of the Earth-sun distance. As time goes by, the stars get closer and closer, and this causes the gravitational harmony in the systems to go out of whack. Comets and any planets orbiting around the stars could jostle about and collide.

C_Destroyer_CrackedPlanet_650

Before the Smashup: This artist’s concept illustrates an imminent planetary collision around a pair of double stars. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope found evidence that such collisions could be common around a certain type of tight double, or binary, star system, referred to as RS Canum Venaticorums or RS CVns for short. The stars are similar to the sun in age and mass, but they orbit tightly around each other. With time, they are thought to get closer and closer, until their gravitational influences change, throwing the orbits of planetary bodies circling around them out of whack.

Astronomers say that these types of systems could theoretically host habitable planets, or planets that orbit at the right distance from the star pairs to have temperatures that allow liquid water to exist. If so, then these worlds might not be so lucky. They might ultimately be destroyed in collisions like the impending one illustrated here, in which the larger body has begun to crack under the tidal stresses caused by the gravity of the approaching smaller one.

Spitzer’s infrared vision spotted dusty evidence for such collisions around three tight star pairs. In this artist concept’s, dust from ongoing planetary collisions is shown circling the stellar duo in a giant disk.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________ OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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