Gliese 436 b, or the Planet of Burning Ice, is one of the most exotic contradictions within the realm of human knowledge, for it is known to literally be a planet coated by flaming ice! However, this apparent contradiction is not entirely unfounded- the planet Gliese 436 b has been placed in certain circumstances that make this seemingly impossible scenario a reality- a wondrous, extraordinary reality.

Gliese 436 b is known to be one of the smallest exoplanets (planets that exist outside the solar system), with a mass and radius very close to those of Neptune, as was discovered by R. Paul Butler and Geoffrey Marcy in 2004. Moreover, it is at an astonishingly close distance from the star around which it revolves, at approximately 2.5 million miles. Although this may seem like a vast distance, let’s put these elusive numbers into perspective- Mercury, the closest planet to our sun that wields temperatures scorching enough to melt lead, is almost 36 million miles from the sun. The Planet of Burning Ice orbits a red-dwarf star less luminous than our star, called Gliese 436, which can be viewed in the zodiac constellation Leo. The fact that Gliese 436 b is located so close to its star is buttressed by the observation that it completes a whole revolution in only 2 days and 15.5 hours. So, the surface temperature of this exoplanet is around 439 degrees Celsius. But the boiling point of water is 100 degrees C. So how does this puzzle of “ignited ice” even exist?

Firstly, scientists determined that forms of water are found on Gliese 436 b on taking into account its radius, mass and location. For instance, had this celestial body been primarily composed of gases like hydrogen and helium, its radius would have been similar to that of Jupiter, if not larger. Moreover, if its main constituents were solid forms of rock and metal, its size would have been comparable to those of Earth, Venus and Mars. It was once posited that the planet was originally a massive gas giant, and that its proximity to its star may be due to inward migration that resulted in the ejection of the outer layers of hydrogen by the star Gliese 436, thus reducing the perplexing, fiery ice cube to its current size. However, this theory was disproved once the radius of Gliese 436 b became known, and it was understood that layers of hydrogen and helium were needed for its planetary radius to be akin to that of Neptune.

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It has been concluded by scientists and astronomers that there is a certain form of ice existent on Gliese 436 b that is kept solid due to the immense gravitational force originating from the planet’s core, which intensifies with increases in depth, thereby preventing the water from evaporating as it does on Earth. There are many different states of water, rather than the three forms we are aware of, and the water on the Planet of Burning Ice is subjected to conditions that make it much denser than the familiar ice seen on earth. It has been hypothesized that the state of water on this planet is Ice VII, a cubic, crystalline form of ice that has been manufactured in laboratories. So, just as carbon turns to diamond when exposed to massive amounts of temperature and pressure, the water on Gliese 436 b turns to “burning ice”, consequently becoming one of the most fascinating heavenly bodies humanity is cognizant of.

However, the many mysteries inherent in this cosmic conundrum do not end there. As suggested by theory, these significant amounts of hydrogen present on this planet, when acquainted with temperatures soaring to such high temperatures, should result in the formation of huge quantities of methane. But Gliese 436 b astounds us again- its methane content is less than 7000 times of what is expected; as said by the late Robert Harrington, an American astronomer, “[Methane’s] absence was conspicuous”. In addition, carbon monoxide, a compound that should begin to form at over 900 degrees Celsius, exists in abundance on the Planet of Burning Ice. But a possible explanation was given by Harrington, who stated that- “Carbon, when it is cold, likes to hold onto hydrogen, but if it is hotter it likes to throw off the hydrogen and steal oxygen from, say, water molecules, to make carbon monoxide”. Speculation has it that this carbon monoxide prevails deep in the planet’s core, where sweltering temperatures abound, and that the methane that may be formed on the dark side of the planet is obliterated by the star’s strong, ultraviolet radiation.

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The universe is teeming with spectacular objects and sights, which we are fortunate to even know about, due to improvements in space technology. In fact, Gliese 436 b has been classified as one of the few planets that puts “science fiction to shame”, in an article written by Nick Dobkin. And if a sensational, astronomical entity that resembles a blazing sphere of ice exists, who knows what else humanity is utterly oblivious to? What other miracles beam down at us from the midnight skies? Well, that is a question that only time will answer, and we must wait as patiently as we can.

Websites referred to:

http://www.astronomynow.com/news/n1009/08gliese/

http://www.cracked.com/article_19662_6-real-planets-that-put-science-fiction-to-shame.html