When Zachory Berta and his team discovered an exoplanet called GJ 1214b orbiting a red dwarf in 2009, they didn't know it would turn out to be one of the most unusual planets ever found. In order to find out more about it, Berta who's from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics used the Hubble telescope to gather data. The team has recently published a paper detailing the results of their research in the Astrophysical Journal. In it, Berta revealed the nature of GJ 1214b: "[It] is like no planet we know of. A huge fraction of its mass is made up of water."
The planet is roughly 2.7 times the size of Earth, and is a bit smaller than Uranus. It belongs to a solar system 40 light years away from us, which makes it our neighbor due to the fact that other exoplanets discovered are mostly hundreds of light years away. It orbits its star every 38 hours at a distance of merely two kilometers — it's so close to its sun that the normal temperature on its surface is around 230° Celsius, which is hot enough to roast meat!
In spite of the extreme heat, water is still abundant on the planet: even its atmosphere is made up of 50% water. When the scientists compared GJ 1214b's data with Earth's, they determined that our planet is much denser in spite of the fact that it's smaller, indicating that GJ 1214b has a lot more water and has less rock. Water on the exoplanet's surface, however, may exist as hot ice, superfluid substance, and other forms that don't naturally occur here on Earth.
The researchers believe that the exoplanet formed a lot farther from its sun than where it is right now. If it really did, then it would have slowly migrated toward its star by passing through its solar system's habitable zone, making it a candidate for studies about the search for life outside of Earth. We may find out more about GJ 1214b in the future if NASA chooses to study it further when the James Webb Space Telescope launches later this decade.
[Image credit: NASA]
More from Tecca: