Sapphires and rubies in the sky

December 19, 2018

21 light years away from us in the constellation Cassiopeia, a planet orbits its star with a year that is just three days long. Its name is HD219134 b. With a mass almost five times that of Earth it is a so-called "super-Earth". Unlike the Earth however, it most likely does not have a massive core of iron, but is rich in calcium and aluminium. "Perhaps it shimmers red to blue like rubies and sapphires, because these gemstones are aluminium oxides which are com-mon on the exoplanet," says Caroline Dorn, astrophysicist at the Institute for Computational Science of the University of Zurich. HD219134 b is one of three candidates likely to belong to a new, exotic class of exoplanets, as Caroline Dorn and her colleagues at the Universities of Zurich and Cambridge now report in the British journal MNRAS.

The researchers study the formation of planets using theoretical models and compare their results with data from observations. It is known that during their formation, stars such as the Sun were surrounded by a disc of gas and dust in which planets were born. Rocky planets like the Earth were formed out of the solid bodies leftover when the proto-planetary gas disc dispersed. These building blocks condensed out of the nebula gas as the disc cooled. "Nor-mally, these building blocks are formed in regions where rock-forming elements such as iron, magnesium and silicon have condensed," explains Dorn who is associated to the NCCR Plan-etS. The resulting planets have an Earth-like composition with an iron core. Most of the su-per-Earths known so far have been formed in such regions.

The composition of super-Earths is more diverse than expected

But there are also regions close to the star where it is much hotter. "There, many elements are still in the gas phase and the planetary building blocks have a completely different com-position," says the astrophysicist. With their models, the research team calculated what a planet being formed in such a hot region should look like. Their result: calcium and alumini-um are the main constituents alongside magnesium and silicon, and there is hardly any iron. "This is why such planets cannot, for example, have a magnetic field like the Earth," says Dorn. And because the inner structure is so different, their cooling behavior and atmos-pheres will also differ from those of normal super-Earths. The team therefore speak of a new, exotic class of super-Earths formed from high-temperature condensates.

"What is exciting is that these objects are completely different from the majority of Earth-like planets," says Dorn - "if they actually exist." The probability is high, as the astrophysi-cists explain in their paper. "In our calculations we found that these planets have 10 to 20 percent lower densities than the Earth," explains the first author. Other exoplanets with sim-ilarly low-densities were also analyzed by the team. "We looked at different scenarios to explain the observed densities," says Dorn. For example, a thick atmosphere could lead to a lower overall density. But two of the exoplanets studied, 55 Cancri e and WASP-47 e, orbit their star so closely that their surface temperature is almost 3000 degrees and they would have lost this gas envelope long ago. "On HD219134 b it's less hot and the situation is more complicated," explains Dorn. At first glance, the lower density could also be explained by deep oceans. But a second planet orbiting the star a little further out makes this scenario unlikely. A comparison of the two objects showed that the inner planet cannot contain more water or gas than the outer one. It is still unclear whether magma oceans can contribute to the lower density.

"So, we have found three candidates that belong to a new class of super-Earths with this exotic composition" the astrophysicist summarizes. The researchers are also correcting an earlier image of super-Earth 55 Cancri e, which had made headlines in 2012 as the "diamond in the sky". Researchers had previously assumed that the planet consisted largely of carbon, but had to abandon this theory on the basis of subsequent observations. "We are turning the supposed diamond planet into a sapphire planet," laughs Dorn.
-end-
Reference:

C. Dorn, J.H.D. Harrison, A. Bonsor, T. Hands: "A new class of super-Earths formed from high-temperature condensates: HD219134 b, 55 Cnc e, WASP-47 e", MNRAS. 19 December 2018. Doi: 10.1093/mnras/sty3435

University of Zurich

Related Planets Articles from Brightsurf:

Stars and planets grow up together as siblings
ALMA shows rings around the still-growing proto-star IRS 63

Two planets around a red dwarf
The 'SAINT-EX' Observatory, led by scientists from the National Centre of Competence in Research NCCR PlanetS of the University of Bern and the University of Geneva, has detected two exoplanets orbiting the star TOI-1266.

Some planets may be better for life than Earth
Researchers have identified two dozen planets outside our solar system that may have conditions more suitable for life than our own.

Fifty new planets confirmed in machine learning first
Fifty potential planets have had their existence confirmed by a new machine learning algorithm developed by University of Warwick scientists.

Rogue planets could outnumber the stars
An upcoming NASA mission could find that there are more rogue planets - planets that float in space without orbiting a sun - than there are stars in the Milky Way, a new study theorizes.

Could mini-Neptunes be irradiated ocean planets?
Many exoplanets known today are ''super-Earths'', with a radius 1.3 times that of Earth, and ''mini-Neptunes'', with 2.4 Earth radii.

As many as six billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy, according to new estimates
There may be as many as one Earth-like planet for every five Sun-like stars in the Milky way Galaxy, according to new estimates by University of British Columbia astronomers using data from NASA's Kepler mission.

How planets may form after dust sticks together
Scientists may have figured out how dust particles can stick together to form planets, according to a Rutgers co-authored study that may also help to improve industrial processes.

Planets around a black hole?
Theoreticians in two different fields defied the common knowledge that planets orbit stars like the Sun.

The rare molecule weighing in on the birth of planets
Astronomers using one of the most advanced radio telescopes have discovered a rare molecule in the dust and gas disc around a young star -- and it may provide an answer to one of the conundrums facing astronomers.

Read More: Planets News and Planets Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.