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Strange Exoplanet Ever Made Of Burning Ice Just Got Even Weirder

The study of our Universe often produces findings which contradict our normal understanding of its workings. And the planetary system of the red dwarf star Gliese 436 (GJ 436) – located around 33.4 light years away – certainly falls into this category. This red dwarf star Gliese 436 is one of the strangest known to mankind.

Scientists became particularly interested in the star system because it hosts a strange, Neptune-sized planet with a number of peculiar features – including a massive, comet-like tail of vaporized gas and also has surface of burning ice. Now, an international team led by researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) have discovered that this planet – known as Gliese 436b (GJ 436b) – also has a “very special” orbit.

Common knowledge dictates that planets orbit on the same plane as the equator of their parent star. However, a study published in the journal Nature shows that GJ 436b’s orbit is “polar”, meaning it passes over the poles of its star, instead of circling around the equator.

Astronomers are not sure what the explanation for GJ 436b’s strange orbit is, however, they suggest that the existence of an unknown, more massive planet with a strong gravitational field could be disturbing it.

The next goal for the researchers is to try and identify this hidden planet. The latest findings add to GJ 436b’s growing list of unusual features. The planet’s spectacular, comet-like tail is perhaps the most notable of these. Made up mostly of hydrogen that has been ejected from the planet’s atmosphere, the tail is around 50 times the size of the star that GJ 436b orbits.

But possibly even more intriguing is the fact that the planet may host large quantities of an exotic form of water ice, known as Ice X, which can remain solid despite temperatures on the surface exceeding 400°C. Scientists suggest that the planet’s powerful gravitational field is strong enough to compress the water to such an extent, that it stays solid, even at extremely high temperatures.