Lesson #326: Gliese 436b is Covered in Burning Ice

It’s not a huge secret that I think space is the coolest (no pun intended). In another life, with an infinitely better high school physics experience and far superior math skills, I would have been an astrophysicist. In a parallel dimension, where I’m a math whiz who had a great physics teacher, I probably am. Because space is effing awesome! One of my favourite things in the world is being alone in a vast open space where I can see more stars than I can even register. I’ve only experienced that twice in my life (once while doing off trail camping in the desert in Big Bend National Park in Texas* and once while camping in the Jordanian desert), but it’s such an exhilarating experience to look up and realize how vast space is and how small my existence is.

There is an exoplanet the size of Neptune that is covered in ice so hot it would make you bear a striking to resemblance to the Nazis at the end Raiders of the Lost Ark. Which is awesome! Discovered in 2004, Gliese 436 b is about 33 light years from earth and takes a surprisingly shot 2 days and 15.5 hours to complete its orbit around the red dwarf star Gliese 436. It also doesn’t have the atmospheric chemical composition (7000x too little methane, too much carbon dioxide) that science says it should, leading astronomers to conclude that Gliese 436b hosts hot water ice, which…what?

It turns out the exoplanet’s high gravity compresses water vapour into what we’d consider ice, but for the part where the temperature of this ice is roughly 400 degrees Celsius, which is, you know, not very cold. So it’s not really ice as we know it; it’s considered “exotic ice”, which is a fancy term for water in a solid state that is really freaking hot.

I have to admit that when I first read the words “burning ice” when I was reading up this morning, I imagined ice that was on fire, which would have been brilliant (and also made zero sense). But the reality isn’t so bad either…

More information herehere, here, and here

*Autobiographical note: Camping in Big Bend was the only time I’ve been off-trail camping. Because we were quite literally out in the middle of nowhere, before the rangers would issue our permit, we were required to give impressions of our hiking boots and descriptions of our gear. We were also each required to let someone know when what day we were heading home and that if they didn’t hear from us by day X to call the park rangers to send a search team out. This led to the strangest message I’ve ever left anyone. My dad got a message that went something along the lines of, “if you don’t hear from me by X day, I’ve probably been eaten by a mountain lion. If that’s the case, call the park rangers to send out a search party.” Needless to say, neither of us were eaten by a mountain lion. 

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