Researchers from the University of Bern in Germany have found that an exoplanet, known as WASP-121b, is so hot that it contains a variety of gaseous metals- including iron- in its atmosphere.
Located 850 light-years away from Earth, WASP-121b is 40 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, and so orbits it in less than two days. Its close proximity to its star is also the reason for its ultra-hot temperature- ranging between 2,500 and 3,000 degrees Celcius.
Conventional wisdom would hold it that ultra-hot planets are incapable of hosting complex chemical compounds due to their blistering heat. But WASP-121b proves this is not the case. From examining data collected by the high-resolution HARPS spectrograph, the researchers found strong signatures of vanadium, a relatively rare metal, in the planet's atmosphere. Unexpectedly, they also found six other metals vaporized in its atmosphere: iron, chromium, calcium, sodium, magnesium, and nickel.
While the possibility of extending human life to a planet like WASP-121b may be unrealistic, the researchers say that the ability to draw conclusions about chemical signatures and processes on planets will be crucial in the not too distant future when scouring other planets for possibilities to sustain life.
"With the same techniques we use today, instead of just detecting signatures of gaseous iron or vanadium, we will be able to focus on biosignatures, signs of life such as the signatures of water, oxygen and methane," says Jens Hoeijmakers, first author of the study.
"We are really beginning to understand what the data from the instruments show us...In the same way, perhaps, that Charles Darwin began to develop the theory of evolution after characterizing countless species of animals, we are beginning to understand more about how these exoplanets were formed and how they work."