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A 'cherry blossom' planet, orbiting a hot young star

Fifty-seven light-years from Earth, astronomers have discovered a magenta planet orbiting a young star not so different than our sun.

The planet is about the size of Jupiter, but four times more massive. Its surface temperature is an uncomfortably warm 460 degrees Fahrenheit. And as planets go, this one is just a toddler--about 160 million years old. 

"If we could travel to this giant planet, we would see a world still glowing with the heat of its formation with a color reminiscent of a dark cherry blossom," said Michael McElwain of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in a statement.

As you can see in the artist's rendering above, it is beautiful. 

In an email exchange with The Times, McElwain said the cherry blossom planet (officially called GJ 504b) is not the only pink planet in the universe, but only a handful of others have been detected and most of those are more red in color. 

PHOTOS: Moons of the solar system

Scientists have hypothesized this planet may be showing more blue because it has fewer clouds in its atmosphere.

The pink planet is especially interesting to scientists because it is the least massive planet that has ever been detected around a star like our sun using direct imaging techniques, and because it flies in the face of traditional planet formation theories.

It is generally believed that planets form in the gas and debris disk that surrounds a young star. Colliding asteroids and comets form the core, or seed, and as that seed becomes more massive, it gains enough gravity to pull gas from the disk toward it, forming a planet. This is called the core-accretion model.

But the pink planet's orbit appears to take it nearly nine times wider than Jupiter's orbit around our sun, and at that great distance, the core-accretion model no longer works.

"This is among the hardest planets to explain in a traditional planet framework," Markus Jasnons of Princeton University and a member of the team that found the planet, said in a statement. "Its discovery implies that we need to seriously consider alternative theories, or perhaps reassess some of the basic assumptions in the core-accretion theory."

The planet was imaged using the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, as part of project to directly image exoplanets around nearby stars.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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