SCIENCE
05/25/2017 05:13 pm ET Updated May 26, 2017

Giant 'Styrofoam' Planet Could Help Scientists Find New Habitable Worlds

The huge, "puffy" planet has the same density as styrofoam.

We’re all pretty familiar with objects made from styrofoam. Our daily lives intersect with disposable items like coffee cups, insulation, hot and cold coolers and those seemingly millions of little cushioning styrofoam-y “things” that are put into mailing boxes to protect the more valuable contents. 

And styrofoam balls are often used in arts and crafts to create models of the planets for hanging mobiles in bedrooms, classrooms and museums around the world. 

While scientists investigate a recently discovered styrofoam "puffy planet," styrofoam balls (left: Saurabh R. Patil/Wikimedi
Left: Saurbh R Patil/Wikimedia Commons / Right: Marc Dantonio/FX Models
While scientists investigate a recently discovered styrofoam "puffy planet," styrofoam balls (left: Saurabh R. Patil/Wikimedia Commons) are enormously popular in the creation of the planets of our solar system (right: Marc Dantonio/FX Models)

But, now, who would’ve guessed? Researchers at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, recently discovered a planet approximately 320 light-years from Earth that, according to a university statement, “has the density of styrofoam.”

And the planet could be useful for scientists looking to discover new habitable worlds.

“This ‘puffy planet’ outside our solar system may hold opportunities for testing atmospheres that will be useful when assessing future planets for signs of life,” the statement said.

A global effort of university researchers, observatories and amateur astronomers resulted in an online paper published in The Astronomical Journal. The paper describes initial findings of the planet dubbed KELT-11b, which orbits the bright, subgiant star, KELT-11.

“It is highly inflated, so that while it’s only a fifth as massive as Jupiter, it is nearly 40 percent larger, making it about as dense as styrofoam, with an extraordinarily large atmosphere,” said Lehigh University astronomer and team leader Joshua Pepper.

But it’s not just the styrofoam-like similarity of the planet that intrigues scientists. The star ― KELT-11 ― that KELT-11b orbits plays an important role. The star is so bright, as seen from Earth’s southern hemisphere, that it can shed light ― literally ― on KELT-11b’s atmosphere.  The high brightness of the star shining through the atmosphere of the planet allows Earth-based equipment to better observe the planet’s atmosphere.

“That’s a process called transmission spectroscopy, where we measure the atmosphere by measuring the light of the star that gets filtered through the outer layers of the planet’s atmosphere,” Pepper told HuffPost.

“The planet goes in front of the star and a little bit of the light from the star passes through it. The atmosphere imprints on that light certain color patterns that are associated with the material in the atmosphere. Whether there’s oxygen, or carbon dioxide, methane or ammonia, you can actually see those patterns, even if we can’t see the planet itself.”

This, in turn, gives astronomers the ability to develop new tools to help them determine if Earth-like planets are surrounded by atmospheres that might allow life to evolve.

KELT stands for Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope, referring to two small robotic telescopes ― one in Arizona and one in South Africa, both built by Pepper ― that scan the night sky, taking measurements of 5 million stars. Those who monitor the data searching for possible planets are looking for the type of star that becomes dimmer at regular times. This might indicate the presence and movement of a planet crossing the star, producing an eclipse effect.

The KELT-South robotic telescope in South Africa that made the discovery of KELT-11b.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Pepper
The KELT-South robotic telescope in South Africa that made the discovery of KELT-11b.

If researchers want to learn more about KELT-11b, they’d better hurry.

Well, sort of.

The “styrofoam” giant is so close to its parent sun that it takes less than five days to orbit KELT-11. KELT-11 has begun depleting its nuclear fuel as it evolves into a red giant, and at this rate, it will eventually envelop its puffy partner within the next 100 million years. 

The Lehigh research team says the KELT discovery will prove to be an important target to learn more about how atmospheres are formed in the search for habitable worlds.

What’s next to be discovered out there in the cosmos? A plastic asteroid?

HuffPost

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