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Forecast for a distant world: Cloudy with a chance of hot metal

Scientists have spied clouds on a far-off planetoid, where the weather calls for a really rugged umbrella.

An artist's impression of PSO J318.5-22

MPIA/V.Ch.Quetz


As if being stranded all alone in a vast universe wasn't bad enough, the world known as PSO J318.5-22 -- floating around 75 light-years from Earth without a star to call home -- has to deal with some really gnarly weather that includes sizzling dust and possible rains of molten iron.

A team of researchers, led by Beth Biller of the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy, studied hundreds of infrared images taken with a telescope in Chile to get the first good look ever at weather systems on an extrasolar planetary object. Their study has been submitted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

PSO J318.5-22 is similar to Jupiter in size but eight times more massive. Droplets of molten iron and hot dust form layers of thick and thin clouds with temperatures exceeding 800 degrees Celsius.

"This discovery shows just how ubiquitous clouds are in planets and planet-like objects," Biller said in a release. "We're working on extending this technique to giant planets around young stars, and eventually we hope to detect weather in Earth-like exoplanets that may harbor life."

The fact that PSO J318.5-22 is basically just drifting in the cosmic sea without a star to orbit is part of the reason that the scientists could get a good look at its weather -- light from a nearby sun could have complicated measurements.

While the weather forecast for PSO J318.5-22 will clearly cross it off humanity's travel itinerary for the foreseeable future, let's keep it in our back pocket as a destination we might want to trick evil Cylons into visiting at some point. ("Wait, the human traitors aren't here...what is this rain? Ahhhh! Curse you, Starbuck!")