Scientists Discover A Sweet, Giant Planet That's As Light As Cotton Candy

hero jpl cotton candy exoplanet
Out of the more than 5,000 exoplanets detected, only a handful have a density that is comparable to cotton candy. Exoplanets like these may bring to mind the iconic movie Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and the cotton candy cocoon guns the Klowns used.

The latest of these exoplanets to be discovered, WASP-193b, is the second least dense planet discovered to date, behind Kepler-51d. An international team of astronomers responsible for finding WASP-193b, remarked the exoplanet is located about 1,200 light-years from Earth. They added that WASP-193b is also 50% larger than Jupiter, while being 7 times less dense. Scientists liken the density of exoplanets such as this one as having a density which is proportionate to cotton candy. Because of the density of these exoplanets, scientists and astronomers remained baffled, as standard models can not reproduce their extremely-low-density.

“The planet is so light that it’s difficult to think of an analogous, solid-state material,” remarked co-author Julien de Wit, associate professor of planetary science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The reason why it’s close to cotton candy is because both are pretty much air. The planet is basically super fluffy.”

killer klownz cotton candy cocoons
Cotton candy cocoons as seen in the Killer Klowns From Outer Space video game.

While standard models may not be able to replicate how one of these “super fluffy” exoplanets can exist, scientists and astronomers believe it could have something to do with how close they are to the star they orbit. This close proximity would generate intense heat on the planet, and essentially cause it to puff out, especially when there is a predominance of hydrogen and helium in the atmosphere.

Scientists do point out that cotton candy-like exoplanets should only exist for a few tens of millions of years, while the star they orbit is at its hottest. However, this presents an issue when it comes to WASP-193b, whose star is believed to be up to 6 billion years old. This dilemma is a large part as to why observed properties of an exoplanet such as WASP-193b cannot be recreated, even with the most technically advanced planetary evolutionary models.

The mystery intertwined with cotton candy like exoplanets only makes them more interesting to those studying them. “WASP-193b is a cosmic mystery. Solving it will require some more observational and theoretical work,” explained Khalid Barkaoui, co-author of the research paper posted on the Nature Astronomy website.

As for those Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the cult classic is being turned into a game, which you can preorder on Steam. It releases soon—June 4, 2024.
Tags:  space, Jupiter, exoplanet