When I was growing up, there were nine planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. By 1989, all of those planets had been explored … except Pluto. Though it’s no longer classified as a planet by some folks, Pluto is one of the largest worlds in the outer solar system, and it remained a mystery until this week.
I woke up today and had already seen this stunning video of space before I even saw it in real life because I’m 100% sure it was created in my dreams. It wasn’t, it was rendered in the 3D simulation program Space Engine. But seriously, this digital recreation of space is what every kid imagines when they look up at a starry sky for the first time or learn about the planets and space.
Some planets that are now small, hot, and rocky may have started off as icy giants like Neptune. Orbiting too close to their stars, their gassy shells boiled off until all that’s left is a rocky core. That’s what scientists have thought for a long time, anyway. Now, for the first time, they’ve spotted a small exoplanet that seems to be in the process of evaporating. The boiling atmosphere of the Neptune-sized GJ 436b is creating a tail that’s nine million miles long and about two million miles wide.
“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck,” jokes Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission. In his view, the same applies to planets.