A heavy metal exoplanet, a star with no iron


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Two strangely related astronomy stories to start the day:

The first describes a weird planet so hot that metals are gas in the atmosphere:

A scorching planet, WASP-121b orbits precariously close to a star that is even hotter than our Sun. The intense radiation heats the planet’s upper atmosphere to a blazing 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Apparently, the lower atmosphere is still so hot that iron and magnesium remain in gaseous form and stream to the upper atmosphere, where they escape into space on the coattails of hydrogen and helium gas.

The sizzling planet is also so close to its star that it is on the cusp of being ripped apart by the star’s intense pull. This hugging distance means that the planet is stretched into a football shape due to gravitational tidal forces.

The presence of so much heavy elements suggests this planet and star formed relatively recently in the history of the universe, after many generations of star formation made possible the creation of those elements.

The second describes a star so devoid of iron that it hints of the first stars that ever formed.

The very first stars in the Universe are thought to have consisted of only hydrogen and helium, along with traces of lithium. These elements were created in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, while all heavier elements have emerged from the heat and pressure of cataclysmic supernovae – titanic explosions of stars. Stars like the Sun that are rich in heavy element therefore contain material from many generations of stars exploding as supernovae.

As none of the first stars have yet been found, their properties remain hypothetical. They were long expected to have been incredibly massive, perhaps hundreds of times more massive than the Sun, and to have exploded in incredibly energetic supernovae known as hypernovae.

The confirmation of the anaemic SMSS J160540.18–144323.1, although itself not one of the first stars, adds a powerful bit of evidence.

Dr Nordlander and colleagues suggest that the star was formed after one of the first stars exploded. That exploding star is found to have been rather unimpressive, just ten times more massive than the Sun, and to have exploded only feebly (by astronomical scales) so that most of the heavy elements created in the supernova fell back into the remnant neutron star left behind.

Only a small amount of newly forged iron escaped the remnant’s gravitational pull and went on, in concert with far larger amounts of lighter elements, to form a new star – one of the very first second generation stars, that has now been discovered.

All the the science and data with both stories is highly uncertain. Both however point to the complex and hardly understood process that made us possible.

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