The very first planet detected outside our solar system powerfully made clear that our prior understanding of what planets and solar systems could be like was sorely mistaken.
51 Pegasi was a Jupiter-like massive gas planet, but it was burning hot rather than freezing cold because it orbited close to its host star — circling in 4.23 days. Given the understandings of the time, its existence was essentially impossible.
Yet there it was, introducing us to what would become a large and growing menagerie of weird planets.
Hot Jupiters, water worlds, Tatooine planets orbiting binary stars, diamond worlds (later downgraded to carbon worlds), seven-planet solar systems with planets that all orbit closer than Mercury orbits our sun. And this is really only a brief peak at what’s out there — almost 4,000 exoplanets confirmed but billions upon billions more to find and hopefully characterize.
I thought it might be useful — and fun — to take a look at some of the unusual planets found to learn what they tell us about planet formation, solar systems and the cosmos.
Let’s start with the seven Trappist-1 planets. The first three were detected two decades ago, circling a”ultra-cool” red dwarf star a close-by 40 light years away. Observations via the Hubble Space Telescope led astronomers conclude that two of the planets did not have hydrogen-helium envelopes around them, which means the probability increased that the planets are rocky (rather than gaseous) and could potentially hold water on their surfaces.
Then in 2016 a Belgian team, using the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, found three more planets, and the solar system got named Trappist-1. The detection of an additional outer planet was announced the next year, and in total three of the seven planets were deemed to be within the host star’s habitable zone — where liquid water could conceivably be present.
So, we have a most interesting 7-planet solar system quite close to us, and not surprisingly it has become the focus of much observation and analysis.
But consider this: all seven of those planets orbits Trappist-1 at a distance much smaller than from our sun to the first planet, Mercury. The furthest out planets orbits the star in 19 days, while Mercury orbits in 88 days.
Given this proximity, then, why are the Trappist-1 planets so interesting, especially in terms of habitability? Because Trappist-1 puts out but .05 percent as much energy as our sun, and the furthest out planet (though very close to the star by the standards of our solar system) is nonetheless likely to be frozen.
Trappist-1, then, is a mini-system with seven tidally-locked (never-rotating) planets that happen to orbit in resonance to each other. Just because it is so different from our system doesn’t mean it isn’t fascinating, instructive, and even possibly the home of planets that could potentially support life.
And since red dwarf stars are the most common type of star in the Milky way (by lot), red dwarf solar system research is an especially hot field.
So there are mini planets and systems and massive planets in what used to be considered the impossibly wrong place. And then there are planets with highly eccentric orbits — very different from the largely circular orbits of planets in our system.
The most extreme eccentric orbit found so far is HD 20782, measured at an eccentricity of .96. This means that the planet moves in a nearly flattened ellipse, traveling a long path far from its star and then making a fast and furious slingshot around the star at its closest approach.
Many exoplanets have eccentricities far greater than what’s found in our solar system planets but nothing like this most unusual traveler, which has a path seemingly more like a comet than a planet.
Researchers have concluded that the eccentricity of a planet tends to relate to the number of planets in the system, with many-planeted systems having far more regularly orbiting planets. (Ours and the Trappist-1 system are examples.)
Unusual planets come in many other categories, such as the chemical makeup of their atmospheres, surfaces and cores. Most of the mass of stars, planets and living things consists of hydrogen and helium, with oxygen, carbon, iron and nitrogen trailing far behind.
Solid elements are exceptionally rare in the overall scheme of the solar system. Despite being predominant on Earth, they constitute less than 1 percent of the total elements in the solar system, primarily because the amount of gas in the sun and gas giants is so great. What is generally considered the most important of these precious solid elements is iron, which is inferred to be in the core of almost all terrestrial planet.
The amount of iron or carbon or sulfur or magnesium on or around a planet generally depends on the amount of these “metals” present in the host star, and then in molecular protoplanetary disc remains of the star’s formation. And this is where some of the outliers, the apparent oddities, come in.
The planet 55 Cancri e, for instance, was dubbed a “diamond planet” in 2012 because the amount of carbon relative to oxygen in the star appeared to be quite high. Based on this measurement, a team hypothesized that the surface presence of abundant carbon likely created a graphite surface on the scalding super-Earth, with a layer of diamond beneath it created by the great pressures.
“This is our first glimpse of a rocky world with a fundamentally different chemistry from Earth,” lead researcher Nikku Madhusudhan of Yale University said in a statement at the time. “The surface of this planet is likely covered in graphite and diamond rather than water and granite.”
As tends to happen in this early phase of exoplanet characterization, subsequent measurements cast some doubt on the diamond hypothesis. And in 2016, researchers came up with a different scenario — 55 Cancri e was likely covered in lava. But because of heavy cloud and dust cover over the planet, a subsequent group raised doubts about the lava explanation.
But despite all this back and forth, there is a growing consensus that 55 Cancri e has an atmosphere, which is pretty remarkable given its that its “cold” side has temperatures that average of 2,400 to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit (1,300 to 1,400 Celsius), and the hot side averages 4,200 degrees Fahrenheit (2,300 Celsius). The difference between the hot and cold sides would need to be more extreme if there were no atmosphere.
And then there’s another super-earth, HD 219134, that late last year was described as a planet potentially featuring vast collections of different precious stones.
To back up for a second, researchers study the formation of planets using theoretical models and compare their results with data from observations. It is known that during their formation, stars such as the sun were surrounded by a disc of gas and dust in which planets were born. Rocky planets like the Earth were formed out of the solid bodies left over when the protoplanetary gas disc cooled and dispersed.
Unlike the Earth however, HD 219134 most likely does not have a massive core of iron — a conclusion flowing from measurements of its density. Instead, through modeling of formation scenarios for a scalding super-Earth close to its host star, the researchers conclude the planet is likely to be rich in calcium and aluminum, along with magnesium and silicon.
This chemical composition would allow the existence of large quantities of aluminum oxides. On Earth, crystalline aluminum oxide forms the mineral corundum. If the aluminum oxide contains traces of iron, titanium, cobalt or chromium, it will form the noble varieties of corundum, gemstones like the blue sapphire and the red ruby.
“Perhaps it shimmers red to blue like rubies and sapphires, because these gemstones are aluminum oxides which are common on the exoplanet,” said Caroline Dorn, astrophysicist at the Institute for Computational Science of the University of Zurich.
Super-Earths, which are defined as having a size between that of Earth and Neptune, are also inferred to be the most likely to be water worlds.
At a Goldschmidt Conference in Boston last year, a study was presented that suggests that some super-Earth exoplanets are likely extremely wet with water – much more so than Earth. Astronomers found more specifically that exoplanets which are between two and four times the size of Earth are likely to have water as a dominant component. Most are thought to be rocky and to have atmospheres, and now it seems that many have ocean, as well.
The new findings are based on data from the Kepler Space Telescope and the Gaia mission, which show that many of the already known planets of this type (out of more than 4,000 exoplanets confirmed so far) could contain as much as 50 percent water. That upper limit is an enormous amount, compared to 0.02 percent of the water content of Earth.
This potentially wide distribution of water worlds is perhaps not so surprising given conditions in our solar system, where Earth is wet, Venus and Mars were once wet, Neptune and Uranus are ice giants and moons such as Europa and Enceladus as global oceans beneath their crusts of ice.
As is apparent with the planetary types described so far, whether a planet is typical or atypical is very much up in the air. What is atypical this year may be found to be common in the days ahead.
The Kepler mission concluded that small, terrestrial planets are likely more common than gas giants, but our technology doesn’t let us identify and characterize many of those smaller, Earth-sized planets.
Many of the planets discovered so far are quite close to their host stars and thus are scalding hot. Planets orbiting red dwarf stars are an exception, but if you’re looking for habitable planets — and many astronomers are — then red dwarf planets come with other problems in terms of habitability. They are usually tidally locked and they start their days bathed in very high-energy radiation that could stertilize the surface for all time.
A prime goal of the Kepler mission had been to find a planet close enough in character to Earth to be considered a twin. While they have some terrestrial candidates that could be habitable, no twin was found. This may be a function of lacking the necessary technology, or it’s certainly possible (if unlikely) that no Earth twins are out there. Or at least none with quite our collection of conditions favorable to habitability and life.
With this in mind, my own current candidate for an especially unusual planet is, well, our own. Planet-hunting over the past almost quarter-century leads to that conclusion — for now, at least.
And it may be that solar systems like ours are highly unusual, too. Pretty surprising, given that not long ago it was considered the norm.
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began writing the column in October 2015, when NASA’s NExSS initiative was in its infancy. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.