Rad Neptune-Sized Planet Has a Comet-Like Tail

'This cloud of hydrogen is very spectacular!'

NASA, ESA, STScI (Artist's Rendition)

An international group of astronomers used the Hubble telescope to spot an exoplanet with a lot of space junk coming off that Neptune-sized trunk: Gliese 436b has a gigantic gas tail.

Why would a planet leave a gaseous path? “The cloud forms a comet-like tail as a result of ultraviolet light coming from the star pushing on the hydrogen and causing it to spiral outwards,” researcher Peter Wheatley said in a statement by the University of Warwick. Every second, 1000 metric tons of hydrogen slough off thanks to heat from the red dwarf around which Gliese 436b orbits. Wheatley again: “What we can see is a large cloud of hydrogen gas absorbing the light from a red dwarf star as its exoplanet, GJ 436b, passes in front.”

Earth is 150 million kilometers from the sun. Gliese 436b, aka GJ 436b? A bit more removed 4 million klicks.

“This cloud of hydrogen is very spectacular!” David Ehrenreich, an astronomer at Observatory of the University of Geneva and an author of the study, said in a release. So spectacular, in fact, that the cloud bigger than the star at the center of the solar system by a factor of 50.

Ehrenreich, Wheatley, and their colleagues published their observation in the journal Nature on Thursday. They also sent around this fun guess as to what the planet looks like, presumably to God.

Mark Garlick/University of Warwick