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Hubble telescope spots new class of planet: a steamy 'waterworld'

The planet GJ 1214b is a watery planet covered in a thick, steamy atmosphere, a new study of Hubble data suggests.

Image

The planet GJ 1214b, shown here in an artist's conception with two hypothetical moons, orbits a 'red dwarf' star 40 light-years from Earth. Observations of the planet, which measures almost three times the size of Earth, suggest that it has a thick, steamy atmosphere.

CfA/David Aguilar

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Scientists have discovered a new type of alien planet — a steamy waterworld that is larger than Earth but smaller than Uranus.

The standard-bearer for this new class of exoplanet is called GJ 1214b, which astronomers first discovered in December 2009. New observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope suggest that GJ 1214b is a watery world enshrouded by a thick, steamy atmosphere.

"GJ 1214b is like no planet we know of," study lead author Zachory Berta of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., said in a statement. "A huge fraction of its mass is made up of water."

Adding to the diversity

To date, astronomers have discovered more than 700 planets beyond our solar system, with about 2,300 more "candidates" awaiting confirmation by follow-up observations.

These alien planets are a diverse bunch. Astronomers have found one planet as light and airy as Styrofoam, for example, and another as dense as iron. They've discovered several alien worlds that orbit two suns, like Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine in the "Star Wars" films. [The Strangest Alien Planets]

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