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article imageAstronomers confirm existence of distant 'water-world'

By JohnThomas Didymus     Feb 22, 2012 in Science
Astronomers have announced discovery of a new type of exoplanet they describe as a "steamy waterworld," that is, a world with an atmosphere consisting primarily of steamy water. Astronomers say the planet is a new type previously unknown to science.
According to ABC News, most planets known to astronomers are composed mainly of rock, gas or other common materials. The planet GJ 1214b is unique because it is composed mostly of water. It is described as a watery world enshrouded by a thick, steamy atmosphere. It was first discovered in December 2009 by the ground-based MEarth Project, led by CfA’s David Charbonneau, Daily Mail reports.
Its constitution was only recently determined in new observations using the Hubble Space Telescope.
Daily Mail reports that in 2010, CfA scientist Jacob Bean and colleagues had announced that they measured the atmosphere of GJ 1214b and concluded that it was likely composed mainly of water. The suggestion was, however, not conclusive because the observations could also be explained by suggesting that the planet was enshrouded in haze similar to the type observed in Saturn's moon, Titan, BBC reports.
But the recent observations of the planet by Berta and his colleagues using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 as it crossed in front of its star helped scientists observe how the planet filtered starlight and thus the composition of the planet. According to lead author Zachory Berta of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., "We’re using Hubble to measure the infrared color of sunset on this world. The Hubble measurements really tip the balance in favor of a steamy atmosphere."
Berta said: "GJ 1214b is like no planet we know of. A huge fraction of its mass is made up of water."
GJ 1214b is located 40 light-years from Earth in the constellation Ophiucus (The Serpent Bearer) and it is classified as a "super-Earth" about 2.7 times Earth's diameter, weighing about seven times as much as the Earth. Information about the mass and size of the planet yields its density at about 2 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc), compared to Earth's density of 5.5 g/cc, and the density of water, 1 g/cc.
The difference in densities between the Earth and GJ 1214b leads to the conclusion that GJ 1214b has less solid rock and more water than Earth. Astronomers also believe that the planet's interior structure is different from our world.
According to Space.com, scientists think the planet probably formed farther away from its star where water was more abundant before it migrated to its present position, leading to the suggestion that it could have experienced temperatures in the Earth range long ago. Astronomers are, however, unable to say how long ago this happened or the duration. Astronomers have determined, however, that the planet orbits a red-dwarf star at a distance of 1.2 million miles (2 million kilometers), and has an estimated surface temperature of 446 degrees Fahrenheit (230 degrees Celsius). Astrobiologists consider this temperature too high to support the type of life we know on Earth.
BBC reports Berta said: "The high temperatures and pressures would form exotic materials like 'hot ice' or 'superfluid water', substances that are completely alien to our everyday experience."
The study by Zachory Berta and his colleagues was published in The Astrophysical Journal.
More about waterworld, Astronomers, exoplanet GJ 1214b, Hubble telescope
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