Recently, astronomers at the University of Geneva discovered a somewhat unusual planet with the telescope of the European Southern Observatory in Chile. This is a cloudy world, the atmosphere of which is so rich in iron that it rains from the sky. The exoplanet was named Wasp-76b and, according to an official press release, has such bizarre temperatures and chemistry that super-hot days allow iron to evaporate into the planet's atmosphere. At night it cools down, condenses and falls back – in the form of metal drops – iron rain. Wasp-76b is similar to Jupiter and is located in the constellation Pisces 390 light years from Earth. But how did scientists find out?
An exoplanet is a planet that is outside of our solar system. The first exoplanets were discovered in the 1980s, and by the end of January 2020, scientists were aware of the existence of 4,173 such planets.
According to a study published in the journal Nature, Wasp-76b is completely “blocked”. This means that one and the same half of the planet is always facing its sun and the other half is covered in darkness. The temperature on the sunny side reaches 2398 degrees Celsius, causing iron to evaporate in the atmosphere. When this happens, a strong wind carries iron to the dark side, where it cools and condenses, after which iron rain begins on the exoplanet. According to the study's authors, a press release published on the ESO website looks like metal drops are falling from the sky. If you've seen iron melt, remember that it becomes a flowing metal under the influence of high temperatures.
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Wasp-76b was launched a few years ago and is almost twice the size of Jupiter – the largest gas giant in our solar system – but it takes less than two days to orbit its star. Since the rotation of the planet coincides with the time it takes to complete the orbit, the same side is always facing the star. On this side, which does not look into the abyss of the cosmic ocean, it is always a day and the sky is clear. On the dark side, however, the temperature drops to around 1482 degrees Celsius and the sky is constantly covered by clouds from which metal precipitation falls.
Strong gusts of wind, the speed of which exceeds 6835 kilometers per hour, constantly transport part of the evaporated iron from the day to the night side of the planet. Clouds appear to form within the day-to-night transition zone as the temperature begins to drop. At the same time, iron vapor is not visible in the morning, the researchers find. The astronomers concluded that the most likely explanation is that there is iron rain on the dark side. The team was able to use the new Very Large Telescope tool from the European Southern Observatory in Chile to examine in detail the extreme climate of an exoplanet similar to Jupiter.
Although previously vaporized iron was discovered in an even hotter and more distant world, it is believed that it remains in a gaseous state throughout the planet. Researchers believe the first case of iron condensation was recorded on Wasp-76b. In one way or another, a traveler who chooses Wasp-76b definitely needs a durable umbrella (preferably made of metal) that melts at much higher temperatures.
In a fun illustration that graphic artist Frederick Peters created especially for the research team, a dancing astronaut holds an umbrella in front of an orange waterfall. "We sing in the rain of iron," says the inscription above.