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Volcanic exoplanet glows with red-hot molten lava

The astonishing diversity of worlds beyond our solar system is consistently revealed with the discovery of new exoplanets. In a recent finding, scientists have encountered a rocky exoplanet where extreme gravitational forces create a landscape of extraordinary volcanism. The world of volcanic exoplanets sheds light on the powerful interplay between planets and their host stars.

The search for exoplanets

Our solar system is just a tiny neighborhood in a vast and mysterious galaxy. For decades, astronomers have been searching for planets beyond our sun, worlds known as exoplanets, that could harbor environments unlike anything found here on Earth. These distant worlds offer a unique opportunity to understand the incredible diversity of planetary systems that exist in the universe.

One of the key tools in this ongoing hunt is NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Launched in 2018, TESS is specifically designed to identify exoplanets orbiting stars that are relatively close and bright. The focus on nearby stars allows scientists to gather more detailed data about these exoplanets, potentially revealing characteristics like their size, composition, and even the presence of atmospheres.

TESS works by monitoring the brightness of stars over time. When a planet passes directly in front of its host star from our perspective, the star’s light dims slightly for a brief period. This dimming event, called a transit, allows scientists to detect the presence of the planet and estimate its size based on the amount of starlight blocked.

Discovery of volcanic exoplanet TOI-6713.01

Astrophysicist Stephen Kane of UC Riverside made an unexpected discovery while studying the star system HD 104067. Initially known to contain a giant planet, data from TESS revealed the presence of not just one but two additional rocky planets orbiting the star.

One of these newly discovered planets, TOI-6713.01, is a rocky world similar to Earth but 30% larger. It is characterized by intense volcanic activity due to gravitational forces from neighboring planets. This brings the total planetary count in the HD 104067 system to three, providing new insights into exoplanetary environments.

The newly identified planet, designated TOI-6713.01, is particularly intriguing. While 30% larger than Earth, its scorching surface temperature of 2,600 degrees Kelvin places it in a league of its own. Such intense heat is largely due to tidal forces exerted by its neighboring planets. These gravitational interactions force TOI-6713.01 into an eccentric orbit, creating immense pressure that leads to continuous volcanic eruptions.

This exoplanet’s volcanic activity gives TOI-6713.01 a distinctive appearance, with its molten lava surface glowing red-hot, resembling a fiery ember from space. The discovery of this planet provides scientists with a rare opportunity to study the impact of tidal forces on planetary geology and climate, expanding our understanding of how gravitational interactions shape planetary environments in distant star systems.

“This terrestrial planet possesses a level of volcanic activity comparable to a hyperactive version of Jupiter’s moon Io,” noted UC Riverside astrophysicist Stephen Kane.

Role of tidal forces in volcanic exoplanet

Io, the most volcanically active body in our solar system, has relentless eruptions fueled by gravitational interactions with Jupiter and its other moons. Jupiter’s strong gravitational pull, combined with the gravitational influence of its other moons, forces Io into an elliptical orbit. This orbit creates continuous tidal flexing, resulting in intense internal heating and driving the ceaseless volcanic activity on Io’s surface.

Similarly, TOI-6713.01 is subjected to extreme tidal forces due to its proximity to the host star and gravitational interactions with neighboring planets. Its larger planetary neighbors distort its orbit, pulling it into an eccentric path around the star. This eccentric orbit causes intense internal heating due to the gravitational pull of the star. The continuous squeezing and stretching from these tidal forces generate significant energy that drives the planet’s explosive volcanism.

As a result, TOI-6713.01 has a scorching surface temperature of 2,600 degrees Kelvin, with molten lava erupting frequently across its surface. The extreme gravitational interactions make TOI-6713.01 glow red-hot, creating a fiery appearance visible from space.

Implications and future research

“This discovery expands our understanding of the limits of energy input into a terrestrial planet and showcases the potential consequences,” said Kane. His team aims to determine the mass and density of TOI-6713.01, providing insights into the scale of its volcanic processes. 

This research highlights how tidal forces can dramatically shape planetary environments. The discovery of TOI-6713.01 emphasizes the dynamic range of planetary systems within our galaxy. 

As research continues, scientists will continue to discover extraordinary worlds. These findings will push the boundaries of our understanding of cosmic forces and planetary evolution.

The study is published in the journal The Astronomical Journal.


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