Astronomers researching the nearby alien planet called Gliese 1214 b have determined that the atmosphere of this super-Earth has an atmosphere that is water-rich, including a strange “plasma form” of water.
However, the high temperature and density of the planet mean that it is drastically different from Earth.
“As the temperature and pressure are so high, water is not in a usual form (vapor, liquid, or solid), but in an ionic or plasma form at the bottom the atmosphere — namely the interior — of Gliese 1214 b,” principle investigator Norio Narita of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan told SPACE.com by email.
Gliese 1214 b is located 40 light-years from the solar system in the constellation Ophiuchus and orbits its cooler, low-mass M-type star once every 38 hours, 70 times closer than Earth is to the sun.
It is the location that causes temperatures that can reach as high as 540 degrees Fahrenheit. It is possible that these temperatures affect the hydrogen and carbon chemistry, producing a haze in the atmosphere. However it is not easy to discover whether the weather is clear or overcast because the differences in the two atmospheres are small.
“At high pressure and high temperature, the behavior of water is quite different from that on the Earth,” Narita said. “At the bottom of the water-rich atmosphere of Gliese 1214 b, water should be a super-critical fluid.”
Because this planet does not have a solid surface, it is difficult to define the height of the atmosphere. So atmospheric scientists have come up with a concept known as scale height, a height determined by changes in the increase or decrease of atmospheric pressure by a set amount. According to Narita, the scale height of Gliese 1214 b is three times deeper than that of Earth.
“We predict that ionic or plasma water can be seen deep inside the planet,” he said. “However, we may not be able to find hot ‘ice’ — high pressure-ices — inside of Gliese 1214 b.”
Scientists often feel that water is a necessary ingredient for life but Narita thinks that due to this planet’s close orbit, there isn’t much chance of the planet being habitable.
“Although water vapor can exist in the atmosphere, liquid water — namely oceans — would not exist on the surface of this planet,” he said. “So unfortunately, we do not think this planet would be habitable.”
It was the MEarth Project that originally discovered this planet. They track more than 2,000 low-mass stars in order to search for new planets.
Narita and his team will continue to study Gliese 1214 b using spectroscopic observations in the visible wavelength.
[Image via Space]