Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The 5 Coolest Planets Orbiting Distant Stars


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By Joseph Stromberg
blogs.smithsonianmag.com
8-14-12

     Exoplanets—planets that orbit stars other than our own Sun—used to be the stuff of science fiction. Then, in 1992, astronomers spied one for the very first time. Now, at least 777 different exoplanets have been detected orbiting 623 different stars, and scientists project that as many as 160 billion exoplanets may exist in the Milky Way alone.

Researchers continue to detect these exoplanets at a rapid pace—since it launched in 2009, NASA’s Kepler space telescope has already help us find 74 confirmed planets and identify another 2,321 potential candidates—and we’ve discovered some truly fascinating ones so far. Here is a rundown of some of the most interesting and unusual:

1. GJ1214b, discovered last year, seemed like a typical exoplanet to astronomers at first glance. But when they tried to calculate the density of the supersized planet, with a diameter roughly 2.7 times that of Earth, they realized it was too light to be made up of rock—the planet had to be home to a remarkable amount of water. The “water” on this waterworld, just 40 light-years away, is not present in liquid form, but rather as steam or an exotic high-temperature ice that occurs only at extremely high pressures. . . .
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