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What kind of Planet is that?

October 6, 2008 on 2:21 pm | In Astronomy, Solar System |

Remember when you used to think that our Solar System was pretty typical? You know, a central star, inner, rocky planets, and then gas giant outer planets?

Well, have I got a find for you. Yes, we’ve discovered planets around other stars. Yes, we’ve found plenty of gas giants that are way closer to their stars than even Mercury is to the Sun. But here’s a new one that takes the cake. A planet called COROT-exo-3b is the physical size of Jupiter, but orbits its star (which is bigger than our own Sun) in just over 4 days. What’s more? It’s incredibly dense: despite being the physical size of Jupiter, it has over 20 times the mass.

All of this means that there’s a planet that’s super close to its Sun, only about 6 million miles away, that’s as big as Jupiter and denser than the densest element on Earth. We’ve never found a planet like this before! You can find writeups of it here and here (caution, link may be broken), but I’d like to tell you how it’s possible to make such a planet. Let’s take a look at two planets we know well: Mercury and Jupiter.

Mercury is the closest planet to our Sun, and what’s notable about it is that there’s no atmosphere; the Sun has boiled it all away. All that’s left is the dense, rocky part. Now, let’s look at Jupiter on the other hand:

Jupiter has layers upon layers of gas and liquid before you get down to the solid core, which is only 12 times as massive as Earth. (Jupiter is about 1000 times as massive as Earth.) If you brought it to within 6 million miles of the Sun, all of the gas and liquid would boil off, and what you’d be left with is a solid core of a dead gas giant. It would be incredibly dense and made of the heaviest metals.

So what do we have with COROT-exo-3b? It looks like the core of a giant planet! This must’ve been a planet that dwarfed Jupiter in size and mass, and possibly could have even been large enough to be a brown dwarf had it gotten enough gas around it. But that didn’t happen, and instead we’ve just formed the largest ball of heavy metals that we’ve ever discovered. It’s so dense because gravity has compressed the core of this once-gas-giant down into a configuration so tightly packed that nothing that naturally occurs on Earth even approaches it. So what should we do about it?

MINING MISSION! It would be the greatest source of metals ever discovered, with literally 10,000 times the mass of Earth in metals there for the taking. Corporate sponsorship, anyone? I’m looking at you, prospectors!


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  1. I can’t believe no one has commented on this post yet. I found it to be one of the most interesting posts you’ve ever made on this blog since it could fundamentally alter our theories on solar system and/or binary star system formation. I think the Gimli picture was a little out-of-place, though. Thanks for tipping me off to this fascinating discovery.

    Comment by Brian — October 10, 2008 #

  2. Actually, it looks like a giant ball of hydrogen. The density is so high because of compression in the interior: in fact it turns out that for planets more massive than about one Jupiter mass, the radius stops increasing with mass. The discovery paper in fact states that it fits right in with predicted mass/radius relationships for brown dwarfs.

    If this were a giant ball of metals or rock, it would be much smaller.

    Comment by andy — October 11, 2008 #

  3. Thanks for the corrected information, Andy. I’ll try to find that paper to get the scoop.

    Comment by Brian — October 11, 2008 #

  4. Andy, Brian, I believe the relationship you’re looking for is shown right over here:

    The purple triangle is Jupiter; interestingly enough, it looks like the radius shrinks and shrinks until you finally get hot enough to start burning hydrogen. No metals necessary. We should’ve known that, considering that Saturn is almost as large as Jupiter, and yet only about 30% of the mass.

    Comment by ethan — October 13, 2008 #

  5. A few problems with mining there. First is getting there. Second is dealing with the amount of power being out of from the star at such close proximity. Third, disturbing the local equilibrium with mining.

    Comment by Zero — November 6, 2008 #


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  16. What i dont understand is why keep teaching 9 planets to our kids and not even mentioning the new planets since then even if they are considered NTO’s or post trans neptuniam whatever term they want to call it. they should all be listed. Stop making our solar system seem small.

    Comment by Sunnedaze — March 20, 2011 #

  17. You know I have been thinking that we have every thing we need to create a star ship right now if they used plastics and took them to space in barrels for easy shipping and built it in orbit.

    One thing that’s the problem for a star ship is gravity, so this article got me to wondering if a person could harvest some of that highly condensed matter off that heavy planet then cut it into sheets, I wonder if it would be dense enough to be used as floor plating and produce some noticeable gravity?

    Comment by lucifur — March 27, 2011 #

  18. Sorry for the double post, but I should add that the study’s with Diamagnetism or some thing similar, could this dense material combined with force shield technology create a gravity like situation? In this case ceiling down.

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