Space

Scientists have found a ‘Forbidden Planet’

There’s something strange about a newly discovered planet about 920 light-years from Earth.

The planet, described this week in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, is Neptune-like — meaning it’s a gaseous orb about three times the size of Earth and resembling the wind-swept blue marble from our own solar system. It also inhabits a region of space called the Neptunian Desert, where scientists were hoping to find exoplanets of roughly Neptune’s size — although this is the first ever sighted there.

Sure, we’ve seen its kind before. But the real Neptune is the eighth planet from our sun, taking around 165 Earth years to saunter around our central star. This planet hotfoots it around its sun in just 1.34 days. That’s because it’s impossibly close to the its host — so close, in fact, that it shouldn’t exist at all.

Earth’s tough, rocky surface may be able to stand its ground against the scorching sun, but a Neptune-like planet, puffed up on its own gases, shouldn’t last long in the face of a star.

In fact, it should immediately get flayed right down to its core, with its atmosphere blown off into space as swiftly as a birthday candle. And yet, this sun-kissed orb somehow manages to keep it together.

“This planet must be tough — it is right in the zone where we expected Neptune-sized planets could not survive,” study author Richard West, from the University of Warwick, notes in a statement. “It is truly remarkable that we found a transiting planet via a star dimming by less than 0.2% — this has never been done before by telescopes on the ground, and it was great to find after working on this project for a year.”

It all adds up to the most baffling of space oddities — a finding so unexpected even researchers couldn’t help but get creative with its name.

They’re calling it the Forbidden Planet.

But not to worry; these researchers remain scientists first — and 1950s sci-fi movie buffs second. Officially, the international team gave the planet the sobering designation of NGTS-4b, a term derived from the Next-Generation Transit Survey, the ground-based telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert that spotted the exoplanet.

But Forbidden Planet, with all its sci-fi strangeness, just seems a better fit for a world that doesn’t seem to conform to our traditional ideas of planetary behavior.

The star it orbits, on the other hand, does subscribe to the norms of massive fiery balls of plasma. Researchers estimate it stokes the planet’s atmosphere to a downright infernal 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit or roughly 1,000 Celsius.

But just think: If you managed to reach the Forbidden Planet — overcoming hurdles like face-melting sunlight and the lung-shattering absence of anything remotely breathable — you’d be celebrating New Year’s Eve almost every day.

Unfortunately, like the planet itself, you probably wouldn’t celebrate many of them. While the study authors suggest NGTS-4b can hold itself together in the face of the sun, other scientists aren’t so sure.

“This planet doesn’t have enough mass to hold onto its atmosphere, given the fierce heat from being so close to its star,” Coel Hellier, an astronomer at Keele University who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Gizmodo. “That means that it was likely born much further out from its star, and has moved to its current short-period orbit only recently.”

This planet, seemingly so defiant in the face of its sun, probably isn’t long for this universe. The Forbidden Planet may have, in fact, wandered from its original station in the solar system — and ended up in a truly forbidden area.

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David

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