Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Covered in Hot! Solid! Water!

An odd planet the size of Neptune, made mostly of hot, solid water, has been discovered not far from Earth and offers evidence that other planets may be covered with oceans, European astronomers reported on Wednesday.

Called GJ 436b, the planet orbits quickly around a cool, red star just 30 light-years away, the team at the Geneva Observatory said.

"It's not a very welcoming planet," Frederic Pont, an astronomer who helped make the discovery, said in a telephone interview. The planet is hot because it is near its star and under high pressure because of its mass.

"The water is frozen by the pressure but it's hot. It's a bit strange -- we are used to water changing conditions because of temperature, but in fact water can also be solidified by pressure," Pont said.

The planet is also likely blanketed by hydrogen, the researchers said -- conditions hardly conducive to life. But if there is water, there could be water on other planets in other solar systems and thus life as we know it.

"It shows there are many ocean planets," Pont said.

The universe continues to surprise and delight.

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