Astronomers discover a new “spongy” planet

(CNN) — What’s big with a fluffy texture that looks like cotton candy? It turned out to be a planet.

An international coalition of astronomers has discovered an unusual planet, named WASP-193b. This planet is 50% larger than Jupiter and the second lightest planet ever discovered.

But WASP-193b, which lies outside our solar system, about 1,200 light-years from Earth, is not just a scientific oddity. The exoplanet could also be key to future research on the formation of atypical planets, according to a study about the discovery published Tuesday in the journal. Nature astronomy.

This cotton candy planet is not alone; There are other similar planets that belong to a category that scientists jokingly call “sponge Jupiters.” The lightest planet ever discovered is the giant planet Kepler 51d, which is roughly the size of Jupiter, but 100 times lighter than the gas giant.

According to Khaled Al-Barqawi, lead author of the study, thin Jupiters have been a mystery for 15 years. But, due to its size, WASP-193b is an ideal candidate for further analysis by the James Webb Space Telescope and other observatories.

“The planet is so light that it is difficult to think of a similar material in the solid state,” says Barqawi, a postdoctoral researcher in Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at MIT, in the postdoctoral study. press release. “The reason they’re similar to cotton candy is that they’re both made primarily of light gases and not solids. The planet is basically very thin.”

A low-density planet poses a major challenge

The planet WASP-193b, which researchers believe is composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, has been a big mystery to researchers. Because the exoplanet’s density is very low relative to its size, calculating its mass has become a challenge.

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Typically, scientists determine mass using a technique called radial velocity, where researchers look at how it moves the ghost For a star, a graph showing the intensity of light emissions at wavelengths as the planet orbits around it. The larger the planet, the more the star’s spectrum shifts. But this did not work in the case of WASP-193b. It is so light that it did not affect the star that the team was able to detect.

Al-Barqawi explained that because of the small size of the cluster signal, it took the team four years to collect data and calculate the mass of WASP-193b. Because the extremely low numbers they found were so rare, the researchers ran multiple tests to analyze the data, just to be sure.

“At first we got very low densities, which was very difficult to believe,” Francisco Pozuelos, co-author of the study and principal investigator at the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia, said in a statement.

Ultimately, the team discovered that the planet’s mass is only 14% of Jupiter’s mass, despite being much larger.

But larger size means a larger “extended atmosphere,” said study co-author Julian de Wit, associate professor of planetary science at MIT. This means that WASP-193b opens a window of information that is particularly useful for understanding the formation of these sponge planets.

“The larger the planet’s atmosphere, the more light can pass through it,” de Wit told CNN. “So this planet is clearly one of the best things we have for studying atmospheric effects. It will serve as a Rosetta Stone for trying to solve the mystery of thin Jupiters.”

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Barqawi said it is also unclear how WASP-193b formed. “Classical models of evolution” for gas giants do not fully explain this phenomenon.

“WASP-193b is a strange planet among all the planets discovered so far,” he said.

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