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Astronomers only started discovering planets outside our solar system two decades ago. Yet they're already finding planets freaky enough to house the lairs of supervillains. Here are nine planets so out this world, they make Tattooine feel as ordinary as Tunisia.
1. Diamond Planet
If we're all atoms underneath the fingernail of a giant, this planet is what that giant wears on her engagement ring. Putting literal meaning to "like a diamond in the sky," scientists in August discovered a distant planet that is a diamond. We don't mean "the surface is covered in diamonds," nearly the whole rock is one big sparkling gem. The planet is larger than Jupiter, which makes it slightly larger than our minds can comprehend.
The speculated formation of this body is quite epic. Once a massive star, layers were pulled away by a nearby pulsar. Finally, all that was left was the extremely dense inner core of a star. Which just goes to show if you polish anything long enough it always becomes a diamond.
2. Dark World
750 light-years away lies a planet that is darker than a piece of coal and less reflective than black acrylic paint. Planet TrES-2b is another of the many amazing finds made by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Although its shadowy nature is partially explained by light-absorbent chemicals and a lack of reflective clouds, scientists have no firm idea why it is so dark.
As if finding a planet that is so pitch-black it baffles the finest minds in science isn't creepy enough, the planet is also glowing. Like a charcoal briquette on a barbecue grill, planet TrES-2b is so hot that it constantly gives off a slight red aura. The nearby star that it orbits heats the planet's surface to almost 2,000 degress Fahrenheit. Scientists have not yet discovered whether nearby planets have a distinct char-grilled taste.
3. The Land of Two Suns
Imagine two giant, fire-bursting stars orbiting each other closely. Now imagine an alien planet doing a full orbit around these spinning stars. Now imagine the psychedelic music of Pink Floyd blasting throughout this galaxy, and you'll understand why Kepler-16b is such a mind-blowing planet. It is the only planet of the hundreds discovered that travels around two suns.
How did this one-of-a-kind orbit happen? Since all three bodies remain in the same plane, scientists believe they formed at about the same time from an interstellar disk of dust and gas. The temperature on the planet is well below mind-numbingly freezing, so don't get any hopes up of finding the savior of the galaxy here.
4. The Speeding Giant
"This planet is so unusual that at first we thought it was a false alarm—something that appeared to be a planet but wasn't," stated Gáspár Bakos, discoverer of planet HAT-P-2b. The fact that these planets aren't given names like "Speederoo, the Wonder World" illustrates the enormous amount of restraint these astronomers have. Such is the case with HAT-P-2b, which is a massive planet 8 times the weight of Jupiter (but only slightly bigger).
What is this enormous bulk of a rock doing? Traveling blisteringly fast in a bizarre slingshot-style orbital. HAT-P-2b has an elliptical orbit that finds it anywhere between 3 million and 9 million miles from its sun. That's a distance discrepancy relative to the positions of Mercury and Mars. Traveling this orbit takes only 5.6 of our days, which gives a glimpse into the forces involved. Scientists speculate another planet might be near enough to affect HAT-P-2b's orbit. If so, that other planet must be scared, like a goldfish sharing a small aquarium with a whale.
5. Cork of the Universe
If you were to take a rocketship the speed of light for 453 years, you could arrive at a peculiar planet called HAT-P-1b. Unfortunately, the surface of the planet is so unstable you wouldn't be able to step out and take a pic, so this is generally viewed as a bad way to spend 900 years of your life. HAT-P-1b is one of the biggest planets discovered, with a radius 1.38 times that of Jupiter.
Despite its incredible size, HAT-P-1b could float on water. Its density is one quarter that of the wet stuff that covers the Earth. You may be wondering how astronomers can so certainly determine the density of a star that's trillions of miles away. The Astrophysical Journal has an in-depth article about the process. After reading the article, we now know that the way to determine the mass of a distant planet is to know a bunch of gobbledygook about astrophysics.
6. The Realm of Fire and Ice
One of the most confounding planets is upsilon Andromedae B. This star lies in the well-known Andromeda constellation (also known as "The Chained Maiden," because it was discovered back when constellations were allowed cool names). The planet itself always has the same side facing its sun. So one end of the world is blisteringly hot, while the dark side features clouds made of ice.
Estimates put the temperatures on the hot side at about 2700 degrees Fahrenheit, while the cold side checks in around negative 148. However, it's not the temperature extreme that has scientists baffled. For unknown reasons, the hottest part of the planet is not the part directly facing the sun, but rather a section off to the side. That's sort of the equivalent to sticking your hand in a fire and burning off your foot.
7. Lava Oceans
The most interesting feature of Gliese 876 d is hard to hide, since it glows bright red at night. During the day, it is predicted that this planet is bright yellow from the searing heat of a nearby sun. Large bodies of liquid lava would be separated by a burnt crusty surface.
This is one of the smallest planets ever discovered outside of our solar system. Keep in mind this is a relative term, as Gliese 876 b is the size of 7.5 Earths. In addition, it's also one of the closer planets to us: The Silver Surfer could leave Earth at light speed and be shredding wicked lava waves within 16 years.
8. Planet Quickyear
Thousands of light-years away lies a small planet, KOI-55 b that whips around its sun in under 6 hours. That's the shortest known orbital period of any planet discovered spinning around a star. Another nearby planet finishes its complete orbit in 9 hours. Scientists predict that our solar system might end up the same way, billions of years from now. Think of a solar system as a bowl of flushing toilet water, where the sun is the drain. The KOI system is at that point toward the very end when all that water is spiraling tightly towards the drain.
The discovery of this planet, only last December, proves the might of the Kepler space observatory. KOI-55b is smaller than the Earth, yet Kepler spotted it a third of a galaxy away. Since its launch in March 2009, Kepler's powerful space telescope has spotted more than 2,000 celestial objects, many of which are turning out to be planets.
9. Galactus' Punching Bag
In 2009, scientists discovered WASP-17b, a huge planet that might be almost twice as big as Jupiter. What interested astronomers most is that WASP-17b is the only planet ever discovered with what is known as a retrograde orbit. That means the planet is spinning in the opposite direction of its star. How did this happen? The leading theory is that some huge space object pulled the planet in the other direction.
Scientists might never get the chance to see if the planet's trick spin actually makes time flow backward. We're just going to assume the obvious: Time flows in reverse there, and anyone who goes to that planet travels backward in time. Unfortunately, you'd have to spend the first 1,000 years on the planet undoing the lengthy time it took to get there.
With the incredible advances of the past 20 years, new planets are being discovered at an amazing rate. Although the chance of discovering evolved life on another planet may still be a long way off, the unbelievably exotic planets being found nearly every month make us more than willing to wait.
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