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Exoplanets: I’ll Stop the World and Melt With You

Side Note: The detailing and workings of other worlds is always an exciting read-through, when you really think of how strange and almost unlikely the case for our own blue dot is, the properties of our neighboring planets are even weirder. Now take it one step further and add exoplanets to the equation:

Gas giant planets are among the most beautiful and awe-inspiring worlds. In our own solar system we’ve long gazed at Jupiter’s extraordinary swirling atmosphere, where stormy circulations like the Great Red Spot persist for centuries. We’ve also been captivated by Saturn’s vast ring system, on average barely sixty or so feet in thickness but over 60,000 miles in width – racing around the planet at velocities as high as 40,000 miles an hour.

The major bulk of these planets, and their cousins around other stars, consists of primordial hydrogen and helium – vast envelopes of matter cocooning their cores and rendering them inaccessible to us. The pressures deep down in a planet like Jupiter can reach a hundred million times those on Earth’s surface, and temperatures can be tens of thousands of Kelvin. Little wonder that these worlds are their own category, their own species.

Something curious should also happen within the most massive planets. At such huge pressures, hydrogen becomes a liquid, even though temperatures are high. This by itself is not so extraordinary, but hydrogen is special, the simplest possible atom – one proton and one electron. As pressures increase, the very nature of liquid hydrogen changes. Its phase alters, and instead of being just a thick, gloopy, insulating layer within a planet, it should transform into a metal.

The idea is that the electrons that are normally associated with single protons in hydrogen atoms become unbound, jumping across a band-gap of energy states, allowing for precisely the kind of easy electrical and thermal conduction in a metal (and some think even superconductivity). This metallic hydrogen can exist as a solid, a lattice-work of arrayed atoms, or as a liquid.

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Competing Explanations Proposed for Strange Christmas Space Explosion

Imaged Above: Artist’s impression of the model suggested for GRB 101225A Credit: Aurore Simonnet, NASA E/PO, Sonoma State University

The Christmas sky last year was lit up by an extraordinarily powerful and mysteriously long-lasting explosion in space that scientists now suggest was a comet smacking into a dense star or a peculiar supernova death.

Radiation from gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful explosions ever seen in the universe, strikes Earth’s atmosphere from random directions in space about twice a day. These bursts can be roughly divided into two kinds, ones lasting less than two seconds, and ones lasting up to minutes.

However, the strange gamma-ray burst detected on Christmas Day 2010 by NASA’s Swift satellite lasted at least half an hour.

Scientists think shorter gamma-ray bursts are generally caused by merging neutron stars — dead stars made up of super-dense neutron matter. Longer bursts are typically thought to originate from hypernovas, in which giant stars that explode as incredibly powerful supernovas spew two opposing jets of energy as they die; we see them head-on as bursts.

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