Nearby super earth may be water rich

A hypothetical water world with the red dwarf Gleise581 glowering on the horizon.

A hypothetical water world with the red dwarf Gleise 1214 glowering on the horizon.

Nearby is relative, this world is more than 40 light-years away. Thousands of times farther from us than Pluto is from our sun. But exo-astronomers have narrowed down the likelihood that a planet two and-a-half times more massive than earth may have a water rich atmosphere and possibly vast oceans on its surface:

If Gliese 1214b had a hydrogen atmosphere, then astronomers would expect very strong Rayleigh scattering to occur. However, the results didn’t show that. This indicates that the most likely possibility, given previous research on the planet, is that the planet’s atmosophere is rich in water vapor. (There’s also a chance that it’s a hydrogen atmosphere with lots of clouds, but that’s less likely.)
The researchers intend to do more observations of the planet to more definitively rule out the possibility of a hydrogen atmosophere for Gliese 1214b. However, given the facts to date, a water-rich planet is still the best possibility. Once that’s confirmed, astronomers will have a better idea about how super-Earths, which are fairly common throughout our galaxy, form in the first place.

The planet orbits about once every 1.8 earth days, meaning it is very close to the parent star. But GJ 1214 is a red dwarf with only 0.003% the luminosity of the sun. Its a very dim star and those measurements mean the planet could be a sort of cold Venus. While that might not sound appealing at first glance, a cold Venus could be cool enough to hold liquid water at the ambient surface pressure, meaning it could be habitable for some extremophiles here on Earth.

Gliese 1214B could well be an ocean world. Think of a much larger version of Europa or Titan, with a liquid surface instead of an icy planet-scape made hard as steel by sub-freezing temperatures. Red dwarfs are highly variable, lots of magnetic storms and loops during active portions of their cycle. If the alien skies are clear enough, the parent star would be huge and glowering on the sunny side of the planet’s surface, not unlike the image above.


  1. says

    Any speculation yet as to how deep the ocean(s) are? Are they a relatively thin layer like Earth’s, or a significant fraction of the planet’s total diameter?

  2. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Cold Venus?

    Ain’t that a contradiction in terms?

    Or , well, Earth?

    Still fascinating idea and great news.

    Shared, Cheers.

  3. =8)-DX says

    How cold? Too cold to pitch a tent (a space-tent, duh.. for all you nitpickers)?

    Either I’m out of the SF genre, or does it seem that twenty years ago this news would lead to the rapid release of Houseboat Gliese 1214b, an intriguing short story including giant super-whales (its a super-earth, after all), scantily clothed Gliesian females (with multiple sensuous appendages) and a hero in trousers?

  4. brucecoppola says

    Holy crap. On my birthday this month I’ll be 12, 166 Gliese 1214b years old!*

    *rounded down, and not accounting for Earth leap years

  5. Amphiox says

    Cold Venus?

    Ain’t that a contradiction in terms?

    Or , well, Earth?

    Still fascinating idea and great news.

    Shared, Cheers.

    Per wikipedia, the equilibrium temperature Gliese 1214b is estimated to be 393-555K. That’s not “cold”, but sure counts as a “cold Venus” given Venus’ surface temperature of 745K.

    The comparison to Venus could also be an indication of the thickness of its atmosphere (ie much much denser than earth’s). With water vapor being an extremely effective greenhouse gas, it also means the planet could have a runaway greenhouse effect just like Venus, only not quite as bad. The high density of the atmosphere also means that water can stay liquid on the surface at an ambient temperature well higher than 100C.

  6. left0ver1under says

    I’ll probably be accused of “JAQing off“, but here goes:

    If sexist and gay-hating terminology is to be expunged, why is it that capitalist terminology is accepted for things that aren’t or shouldn’t be?

    Water exists on that planet, it’s plentiful or abundant. Why do we speak as if it’s an exploitable resource for profit? Isn’t that part of the environmental problem here on Earth, seeing everything as something to be consumed rather than preserved?


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