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 ...
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.
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.
In a long list of horrible planets that would do horrible things to you, think of HD 69830 c as an intermission. In the future, when interstellar space travel is possible and every family has its own shuttle, this will almost certainly be the planet teenagers will bring dates to in the hopes of getting laid.
HD 69830 c is exactly the right distance from its star for liquid water to form. That will come in handy for reflecting the vast glowing beam of light that never leaves the sky, like a permanent shooting star.
It's the best real estate in the galaxy, but the local HOA are assholes.
For comparison, our solar system has an asteroid belt, one you probably don't recall seeing in the night sky, because it's so far from Earth and the asteroids are so far apart that it's practically invisible to the naked eye. HD 69830 c has a similar belt that's 10 times closer than and 20 times as massive as ours. That translates to a light so bright that it's 1,000 times more intense than the Milky Way. Looking at this ring would be the equivalent of looking at the very center of a comet, except stretching brilliantly across the entire sky.
And considering the proximity of the asteroid belt to the planet, you can expect some heavy meteor showers every single night, making HD 69830 c the pinnacle of romantic stargazing. We hope it's comforting to know that the peak of future of space exploration may be your great-great-grandchildren having tons of shuttle sex on the planet equivalent of Lookout Point.
"OH, COME ON!"