Astronomers have discovered that a huge, searing-hot planet orbiting another star is loaded with an unusual amount of carbon. The planet, a gas giant named WASP-12b, is the first carbon-rich world ever observed. The discovery was made using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, along with previously published ground-based observations.
''This planet reveals the astounding diversity of worlds out there,'' said Nikku Madhusudhan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, lead author of a report in the Dec. 9 issue of the journal Nature. ''Carbon-rich planets would be exotic in every way -- formation, interiors and atmospheres.''
It's possible that WASP-12b might harbor graphite, diamond, or even a more exotic form of carbon in its interior, beneath its gaseous layers. Astronomers don't currently have the technology to observe the cores of exoplanets, or planets orbiting stars beyond our Sun, but their theories hint at these intriguing possibilities.
The research also supports theories that carbon-rich rocky planets much less massive than WASP-12b could exist around other stars. Our Earth has rocks like quartz and feldspar, which are made of silicon and oxygen plus other elements.
A carbon-rich rocky planet could be a very different place.
''A carbon-dominated terrestrial world could have lots of pure carbon rocks, like diamond or graphite, as well as carbon compounds like tar,'' said Joseph Harrington of the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, who is the principal investigator of the research.