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Strange carbon mountains of farflung planet

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A curious world orbiting a star 1200 light years from our own solar system could be home to diamonds of enormous, unparalleled size, say boffins.

The planet WASP-12b was discovered last year by a group of UK astronomers, the Wide Angle Search for Planets. Since then it has been probed intensively by NASA's Spitzer telescope in orbit above the Earth's atmosphere.

US boffins poring over the Spitzer data have now announced that WASP-12b is the first "carbon rich" world ever discovered among the hundreds of planets known to humanity. The strange, huge world has much more carbon in its makeup than is generally found, which means that a variety of rare forms of the element are likely to be common there.

“On most planets, oxygen is abundant. It makes rocks such as quartz and gases such as carbon dioxide," says Florida-based prof Joseph Harrington. “With more carbon than oxygen, you would get rocks of pure carbon, such as diamond or graphite, and lots of methane gas."

Quite apart from the probably diamond or graphite mountains to be found there, WASP-12b is strange and unearthly in other ways. It orbits its sun - a fairly regular type star not dissimilar to our own - so closely that daylight temperatures of around 2590°C would be normal there, and the planet's year lasts just 26 of your Earth hours.

"This planet tells us that there are many other strange worlds out there, beyond even the imaginations of the people doing the science," comments Nikku Madhusudhan of MIT, lead boffin on the Spitzer study.

Full boffinry on the findings is published in the big brains' big-brain mag Nature, here (subscription required for the full paper). ®

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