M Dwarf causes Earth-like planet to melt gold with Midas’ touch

King Midas was said to have a golden touch. Anything he wanted to turn to gold, he could. Wealth and splendor eventually became repugnant to him and he fled his life of royalty to worship Pan the Satyr, the Greek god of fields and satyrs.

Pan challenged Apollo after comparing his pan flute music to Apollo’s lyre. Apollo was awarded the contest with a simple strum of his instrument to which Midas dissented. Apollo said he must’ve “had the ears of an ass!” So King Midas’ ears became that of a long-eared donkey.

King Midas’ barber knew the secret, often Midas would cover his head in a headdress. The barber whispered the heavy secret into a small hole in the ground he dug and covered it up. Later, up sprang reeds whispering the truth into the wind. It is said King Midas took his own life by drinking the blood of an ox for the truth was too much to bear.

While King Midas’ touch may prove not so useful on this planet, on the Earth-like world GJ 1252b, he could make rivers that would create boiling and glittering oceans of gold.

Don’t jump in after you eat your lunch. You might get a cramp.

GJ 1252b orbits an M Dwarf, the most common type of star in our universe, a bit closer than we do to our Sun. Due to this, it possesses no atmosphere, constantly being bombarded by solar waves and heated plumes of radiation scorching its surface.

This planet cannot withhold an atmosphere due to the intense ionic activity, solar blasts, and proximity to the Sun-like star. Mercury suffers a similar fate. There is such an intense level of heat from the nearby sun that it quite literally can melt gold, silver, and copper.

“The pressure from the star’s radiation is immense, enough to blow a planet’s atmosphere away,” says Michelle Hill, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Riverside, in a statement.

The planet’s orbit is two-to-one to our Earth day. In one Earth day, it will achieve two orbits, a dizzying speed on top of a 2,200-degree Fahrenheit temperature in excess. This larger-than-Earth planet copies Mercury in that its atmosphere is constantly sheared off by the intense heat and closeness to the M Dwarf. Mercury, however, does have an atmosphere albeit paper thin.

The sun slowly chips away at our atmosphere but the speed of atmospheric recycling is almost 1:1. Typically, this process is usually unnoticeable. Carbon dioxide traps heat, which is why our planet can wax and wane in temperature over decades or centuries. Our cyclic nature of rain, ocean, clouds, and foliage help replenish whatever atmosphere we’ve lost. Global warming will make this more challenging for Mother Earth, however.

“The planet could have 700 times more carbon than Earth has, and it still wouldn’t have an atmosphere. It would build up initially, but then taper off and erode away,” said Stephen Kane, UCR astrophysicist. It seems a grim aspect that most planets this close to a star, even an M Dwarf, may be inhospitable. And even further speculation goes into what could live or survive under such alien extremes.

We would need a “Midas touch” to get these kinds of planets “golden” (likely terraforming, solar reflectors/refractors, and a lot of air conditioners). And just like a Greek tale, there’s another romantically woeful arc in the story. 

“It’s possible this planet’s condition could be a bad sign for planets even further away from this type of star,” Hill said. “This is something we’ll learn from the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be looking at planets like these.”

We do have a silver lining, though, a moral of the “story” here.

“If a planet is far enough away from an M dwarf, it could potentially retain an atmosphere. We cannot conclude yet that all rocky planets around these stars get reduced to Mercury’s fate,” Hill said. “I remain optimistic.”

With hopeful hearts, we continue to search the sky. While this is a disappointing find, it is nonetheless important. Another scroll to add to the library of knowledge as we piece together the ultimate puzzle and, maybe, even find other life or a planet that can sustain it.

We can always trust the “Midas Touch” in science to bring the golden truth.

Zíse kalá! (Live well!)

The research paper is published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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About the Author

Katie Kinlin

Katie Kinlin is a technical copywriter who loves all things space. She was an educator at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where she was inspired to pursue a career in aerospace. She helped test 73 internet satellites at OneWeb — all healthy and in Low Earth Orbit.

Her favorite vehicle is the space shuttle.

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