George Lucas dreamed up planets with two suns and cloud cities, and Gene Roddenberry invented dozens of worlds that were all suspiciously similar to the Southern California desert. But as actual space exploration advances and we start to learn what's really on the surface of those distant worlds, it becomes increasingly clear that our imagination has no chance of competing with the jaw-dropping, pants-peeing craziness outer space is capable of cooking up.
For instance ...
6Gliese 436 b Is Coated in Burning Ice
This may seem completely foreign to you, but just for a moment try to pretend you are Han Solo (ladies, you can pretend you're Princess Leia). You are in the rebel base on the planet Hoth, and every inch of the entire planet is covered in ice. What you are picturing right now is somewhere close to the actual Gliese 436 b. The key difference, however, is that the planet is so close to its star that it stays at a consistent 800 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface.
In other words, T-shirt weather.
"So where the hell did all this damn ice come from?" you say, because it's understandably confusing and because once you're Han, it's hard to step out of character. Everyone knows there's no way that ice, let alone liquid water, can exist at more than four times its boiling temperature.
But Gliese 436 b has the remarkable ability to defy everything you know about the predictability of matter. The gravity on the planet is so powerful that it compresses all of the water vapor in the atmosphere and pushes it together into a solid, forming a thick layer over the entire planet of what scientists call "ice ten."
It's like Satan's Aspen.
So the result is kind of like the ice we have here on Earth, except it would do absolutely nothing for a warm soda, and holding a hunk of it in your hand would require you to get a new hand. So it would make the world's most awesome, destructive snowman, is what we're saying.
5WASP-12b Is Slowly Getting Eaten
WASP-12b is the planet equivalent of a fly caught in a web. The gravitational pull from its sun has lured the planet in so close that WASP-12b can't escape the orbit, and now the star can take its time consuming it. In fact, planets like WASP-12b are known as "insect" planets rotating around "arachnid web suns," according to the space terminology we just made up.
But it's this devouring that makes the planet interesting. The proximity to the star has heated up the atmosphere, causing it to balloon to an absurd size. This means WASP-12b is literally too fat to escape the gravitational force of the star, and as a result it's being distorted into the shape of a football.
Sorry, Europeans. It's our word now.
The whole planet has become oblong as the sun eats away the mass of WASP-12b at 6 billion metric tons per second. Eventually, it will be sucked up into the outer layer of the sun, which is of particular interest to astronomers because they can actually see the last stages of the life of a planet.
In addition, they can see the remnants of another planet that was already torn apart and now flecks the surface of the star, a planet they suspect had a lower density and was a lot like Earth. Given that WASP-12b was likely about the size of Jupiter before it bloated with all the heat, what we could be looking at is the future of our own solar system. So (Spoiler Alert) things look pretty grim.
More of an egg than a football. By the way, we're taking the word "egg," too.