Scientists are finding all kinds of strange worlds. Now, they have discovered a gas giant with the density of a marshmallow orbiting a cold red dwarf star located 580 light-years from Earth. The planet, identified as TOI-3757 b, is the “softest” planet ever found, according to the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab, which operates some of the telescopes used in the study.
According to a press release, the newly discovered planet has a diameter of 150,000 km, slightly larger than the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. It orbits its host star every 3.5 days. The team calculated its average density to be 0.27 grams per cubic meter, which is about a quarter of the density of water – meaning it would float if placed in a giant tub filled with water. .
Red dwarfs are the smallest and faintest stars that can convert hydrogen to helium in their cores at a steady rate. Although they are much cooler than the sun, red dwarfs are known to be extremely active and emit intense rays and, therefore, rarely form planets around them.
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“Giant planets around red dwarf stars have traditionally been thought to be difficult to form,” said Shubham Kanodia, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution’s Earth and Planetary Laboratory.
“So far, this has only been considered with small samples from Doppler surveys, which often find giant planets farther away than these red dwarfs. So far we don’t have one. Planetary samples are large enough to find close gas planets in a robust way,” added Mr. Kanodia, according to the press note.
The team of researchers say there are still unexplained mysteries surrounding TOI-3757 b – the biggest mystery is how the planet can form, especially at low densities. However, they explain two main factors.
First, it is possible that this planet has a lower number of heavy elements in its rocky core than other gas giants, which may have delayed the gas’s accumulation and reduced its density. Second, it is possible that the planet’s slightly elliptical orbit leads to significant overheating that could cause the planet’s atmosphere to swell.
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“Potential future observations of this planet’s atmosphere using NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope have may help elucidate its inflated nature.
Astronomers believe the study could help them understand what planets are made of and how they are formed. It could also help them learn more about the strange atmosphere of the newly discovered planet.