This Planet Burns Hotter Than Most Stars

The phrase “hot mess” has never been more appropriate. Astronomers have found a massive, wildly whirling, disintegrating exoplanet that reaches a burning 7800°F. The team described the bizarre gas giant in the journal Nature.

The Hubble and other big space telescopes tend to get all the glory, but smaller instruments here on Earth are working just as hard. The newly discovered exoplanet, called KELT-9b, was named for the humble scope that spotted it—a KELT, or Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope.

Located 650 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus (pictured here), KELT-9b is one strange celestial body.

Telescope image of the Cygnus Loop Nebula.
Part of the constellation Cygnus.

With nearly three times the mass of Jupiter, it's gargantuan, and it’s locked in breakneck orbit around the star HD 195689 (a.k.a. KELT-9). The exoplanet is so close to the star and moving so fast that one full transit around HD 195689—what we think of as a year—takes less than two days.

The planet is also tidally locked to its star, the same way we only ever see one side of our Moon. And the side of KELT-9b that faces HD 195689 is on permanent, hellish blast. It’s so hot that if you somehow managed to get water onto its surface, the water would immediately dissociate into its component molecules of hydrogen and oxygen.

Co-lead author Scott Gaudi of The Ohio State University says he and his colleagues are just boggled by the discovery.

"It's a planet by any of the typical definitions based on mass, but its atmosphere is almost certainly unlike any other planet we've ever seen just because of the temperature of its day side," he said in a statement.

But KELT-9b’s blazing, wild ride is not destined to last. The paper authors say the exoplanet is likely already shedding mass like a comet as it moves. And if this gradual melting doesn’t destroy it, its ravenous sun will swallow the peculiar, scalding planet like a cookie straight out of the oven.

"The long-term prospects for life, or real estate for that matter, on KELT-9b are not looking good,” co-lead author Keivan Stassun of Vanderbilt University said in the statement.

This is too bad for KELT-9b, but it could be very good for science.

"As we seek to develop a complete picture of the variety of other worlds out there,” Stassun said, “it's important to know not only how planets form and evolve, but also when and under what conditions they are destroyed."

Gaudi says the discovery is a reminder that we still have a lot to learn, and that we need to think bigger.

“Mother Nature is way more imaginative than we are,” he told CNN. “And anytime you find something this weird, it broadens your horizons of what nature can possibly be like."

Do Dogs Understand What You’re Telling Them? Scientists Are Scanning Their Brains to Find Out

iStock/kozorog
iStock/kozorog

We all know that dogs can learn to respond to human words, but it’s not always clear what’s happening in a dog’s brain when they hear and recognize words like “cookie” and “fetch.” Do they have to rely on other clues, like gestures, to figure out what we mean by that word? Do they picture a dog biscuit when you say “cookie,” or just the sensation of eating? In a new study, scientists from Emory University and the New College of Florida tried to get to the bottom of this question by training dogs to associate certain objects with words like “blue” and “duck,” then using fMRI brain scanners to see what was happening in the dogs’ heads when they heard that word.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the brains of 12 different dogs of various breeds (you can see them below) that had been trained to associate two different objects with random words like “duck,” “blue,” and “beach ball.” Those two objects, which were different for each dog, were brought by the dogs’ owners from home or chosen from a selection of dog toys the researchers compiled. One object had to be soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other one had to be something hard, like a rubber toy or squeaky toy, to make sure the dogs could clearly distinguish between the two. The dogs were trained for several months to associate these objects with their specific assigned words and to fetch them on command.

Then, they went into the fMRI machine, where they had been trained to sit quietly during scanning. The researchers had the dogs lie in the machine while their owners stood in front of them, saying the designated name for the toys and showing them the objects. To see how the dogs responded to unknown words, they also held up new objects, like a hat, and referred to them by gibberish words.

Dogs in a science lab with toys
Prichard et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018]

The results suggest that dogs can, in fact, discriminate between words they know and novel words. While not all the dogs showed the same neural response, they showed activation in different regions of their brains when hearing the familiar word versus the novel one.

Some of the dogs showed evidence of a greater neural response in the parietotemporal cortex, an area of the dog brain believed to be similar to the human angular gyrus, the region of the brain that allows us to process the words we hear and read. Others showed more neural activity in other regions of the brain. These differences might be due to the fact that the study used dogs of different sizes and breeds, which could mean differences in their abilities.

The dogs did show a surprising trend in their brains’ response to new words. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” lead author Ashley Prichard of Emory University said in a press release. “What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans—people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." This could be because the dogs were trying extra hard to understand what their owners were saying.

The results don’t prove that talking to your dog is the best way to get its attention, though—it just means that they may really know what's coming when you say, "Want a cookie?"

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER