Cosmic climate

Ollie Burton explains why we should consider ourselves lucky that the clouds around Earth only dowse us with water

23rd November 2015

Some of the loneliest objects in our universe are those planets unfortunate to have lost the stars that they previously orbited. The Pan-STARRS survey of 2013 discovered one such planet, lovingly named PSO J318.5-22, floating in the void a little over 470 trillion miles from Earth.

However, the most interesting thing about this object is not its managing to be somehow more solitary than myself as I furiously rattle the keyboard of a library computer at 2am, but in the bizarre changes in brightness it seems to exhibit, as much as a 10% change over a few hours. This has led researchers at the University of Edinburgh to hypothesise that this phenomenon is due to some extraordinary weather patterns.

"Clouds would be composed of incredibly hot molten metal, rather than our considerably more tranquil water clouds"

The planet has a similar rotational period to that of Jupiter; roughly 10 hours, but unlike the sub-zero gas giant, maintains a rather toasty surface temperature of approximately 1100 Kelvin – this means that clouds would be composed of incredibly hot molten metal, rather than our considerably more tranquil water clouds here on Earth. Remarkably, all this heat must be the result of internal processes as no star is present to act as an outside source of energy.

It is thought by Catherine Morley, a specialist in modelling exoplanet atmospheres working at the University of California, that similar stellar objects might exhibit similar behaviour, particularly in the case of previously-overlooked ‘brown dwarf’ stars. Her team is currently working to analyse a relatively young star known as HR8799 nearly 130 lightyears away in the Pegasus constellation which is orbited by planets displaying similar characteristics. This new insight could deliver untold amounts of new information about the conditions of so many more planets, and I for one am eagerly anticipating a weather forecast for a planet on the other side of the galaxy. And if Michael Fish could read it, that would be great too, but no pressure.

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