Astronomers Have Found a Planet With a Titanium Atmosphere

Wednesday, 13 September 2017 - 7:02PM
Space
Astronomy
Wednesday, 13 September 2017 - 7:02PM
Astronomers Have Found a Planet With a Titanium Atmosphere
ESO/M. Kornmesser
In case you needed any proof that space is just the coolest place ever, astronomers have found a super hot gas giant with an atmosphere made up primarily of titanium oxide, according to the European Southern Observatory. Sure, it won't become a prime vacation destination any time soon, but the really neat thing about having a metal atmosphere is that it might help scientists in the search for alien life.

The planet in question, WASP-19b (don't worry, there are no actual wasps on the planet) is a Jupiter-like gas giant; big and bright, having almost formed as a star itself. Instead of becoming a bona fide celestial body, though, WASP-19b is in a really close orbit around its star, WASP-19; this planet moves so quickly that it takes just nineteen hours to complete a full circuit of its orbit.

Naturally, this means that it's ridiculously hot on the planet's surface, with temperatures reaching 2000 degrees Celsius (3632 Fahrenheit), hot enough to maintain a layer of gaseous titanium oxide within WASP-19b's atmosphere.

Titanium oxide is a fairly rare substance on Earth, so to discover such an abundant supply of the material - albeit hurtling around a distant star at a ludicrous speed amid unbearable temperatures - is a lot of fun for astronomers. What really makes this planet unique is the way that its atmosphere can be used to learn about conditions on faraway planets, helping humanity to more effectively spot worlds that might house organic life.

While WASP-19b is far too hot for life to develop, scientists have been able to to analyze the planet's atmosphere by examining the way light particles behave while in its vicinity, and we're able to use spectographs to gain a benchmark for what planets' atmospheres look like from a distance when they contain different materials.



Based on what WASP-19b's atmosphere looks like when viewed from Earth, we can extrapolate what a planet with methane in its atmosphere may look like. If we're tuned in to look for this specific type of atmosphere, we'll be in a better position to easily identify worlds that could house life. Yes, this is a matter of looking at metal worlds in order to better identify planets covered in farts, but that's just how science works sometimes, and it's beautiful.

WASP-19b also represents an unprecedented opportunity for scientists to accurately study planetary atmospheres. According to astronomer Elyar Sedaghati, who was involved with the initial study that located WASP-19b and discovered its unique atmosphere:

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"Detecting [methane] molecules is, however, no simple feat. Not only do we need data of exceptional quality, but we also need to perform a sophisticated analysis. We used an algorithm that explores many millions of spectra spanning a wide range of chemical compositions, temperatures, and cloud or haze properties in order to draw our conclusions."
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From WASP-19b, scientists now have a perfect source of data from which to produce their algorithm. The planet's titanium atmosphere absorbs heat and other particles, shielding the surface from much of the sun's heat, but, more importantly, giving scientists a wonderfully clear picture of the planet's molecular composition. From this, astronomers hope to be able to get an idea what other elements and compounds may look like within a planet's atmosphere, even while we're at a great distance.

So, all in all, there's a lot to be excited about here. That is, if the concept of a superhot, titanium-coated, failed star hurtling at unbelievable speeds around its star isn't exciting enough for you.
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