A planet so dense it’s probably all iron

Artist's rendition of GJ 367b.

Finding a planet the size of Mars 31 light years away is not an easy task, but that is precisely what a team of German astronomers has achieved. The discovery has to do with the incredible disproportion between the exoplanet’s mass and its size, and although it is not habitable it could help us to locate others that are.

The discovery of GJ 367b has been almost fortuitous. The planets They do not emit light like stars, nor do they reflect enough to be visible beyond our Solar System. As a result, we cannot detect them by direct observation, but only by indirect methods such as the transit method (studying the changes in light that the star experiences when the planet passes in front of it from our perspective). Another method is the radial velocity method, which makes it possible to detect exoplanets by studying the small perturbations.gravitational urbations that the planet causes in the star it accompanies.

Both methods always favor the detection of large planets because they are the ones that generate the greatest disturbances in either of the two measurement methods, but sometimes luck wants them to discover an anomaly. GJ 367b is one of those anomalies. It is a rocky planet the size of Mars, but it is so close to the star and its density is so high that it produces enough gravitational disturbance to be detected from Earth.

The average density of our planet is 5.51 grams per cubic centimeter. The density of iron at room temperature is 7.87 grams. The average density of GJ 367b is 8.10 grams per cubic centimeter. “The high density indicates that the planet is probably dominated by a nucleus of iron and nickel ”, explains the astronomer Szilárd Csizmadia. “Those properties are similar to those of Mercury, whose disproportionately large iron and nickel core make it unique in the Solar System.”

Like Mercury, GJ 367b is so close to its star that it is anchored to it. One of its faces is always exposed to solar radiation, which raises its temperatures to around 1,500 degrees Celsius. It is not, in short, not even remotely habitable. However, its discovery is a wake-up call to the solar system in which it has appeared, because there is a good chance that there are other planets in that same star, and some could even be in its zone of habitability. “It is as if it were a poster with the phrase: Blook for more planets here”They joke its discoverers, who continue to examine that corner of space. [Science vía Science Alert]

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