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Scientists say "forbidden substances" may be contained in the interior of super-Earths

December 23, 2015, 22:16 UTC+3 MOSCOW
These substances may increase the heat transfer rate and strengthen the magnetic field on these planets
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Gliese 832с as compared to Earth

Gliese 832с as compared to Earth

© UPR Arecibo

MOSCOW, December 23. /TASS/. Using mathematical models, scientists have "looked" into the interior of super-Earths and discovered that they may contain compounds that are forbidden by the rules of classical chemistry — and the presence of newly predicted substances may increase the heat transfer rate and strengthen the magnetic field on these planets. The findings have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The authors of the paper are a group of researchers from MIPT led by Artem R. Oganov, a professor of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology and the head of Computational Materials Discovery Laboratory at MIPT. In previous studies, Oganov and his colleagues used Oganov's algorithm USPEX to identify new compounds of sodium and chlorine, as well as other exotic substances.

In their latest paper, the researchers attempted to find out which compounds may be formed by silicon, oxygen, and magnesium at high pressures. "Earth-like planets consist of a thin silicate crust, a silicate-oxide mantle — which makes up approximately 7/8 of the Earth’s volume and consists more than 90% of silicates and magnesium oxide — and an iron core. We can say that magnesium, oxygen, and silicon form the basis of chemistry on Earth and on Earth-like planets," says Oganov.

Using the USPEX algorithm, the researchers explored all possible compounds of Mg-Si-O that may occur at pressures ranging from 5 to 30 million atmospheres. Such pressures exist in the interior of super-Earths - rocky planets with a mass several times greater than the mass of the Earth. There are no planets like this in the solar system, but astronomers know of planets orbiting other stars that are not as heavy as the gas giants, but are considerably heavier than the Earth. They are called super-Earths. These planets include the recently discovered Gliese 832c, which is five times heavier than the Earth, or the mega-Earth Kepler-10c, which is 17 times heavier than the Earth.

The results of the computer modelling show that the interior of these planets may contain the "exotic" compounds MgSi3O12 and MgSiO6. They have many more oxygen atoms than the MgSiO3, the most abundant compound in the interior of the Earth. In addition, MgSi3O12 is metallic, whereas other substances consisting of Mg-Si-O atoms are insulators or semiconductors.

"Their properties are very different from normal compounds of magnesium, oxygen, and silicon — many of them are conductors or semiconductors. This is important for generating magnetic fields on these planets. As planetary magnetic fields are produced by convection of electrically conductive planetary interiors, high conductivity could mean a significantly more powerful magnetic field," explains Oganov.

A more powerful magnetic field means powerful protection from cosmic radiation, favourable for living organisms. The researchers also predicted new magnesium and silicon oxides that do not fit in with the rules of classical chemistry — SiO, SiO3, and MgO3, in addition to the oxides MgO2 and Mg3O2 previously predicted by Oganov at lower pressures.

The computer model also enabled the researchers to determine the decomposition reactions that MgSiO3 undergoes at the ultra-high pressures on super-Earths - post-perovskite. This affects the boundaries of the layers in the mantle and their dynamics, in particular the speed of motion of lithospheric plates. The fact that the Earth’s continents are in constant motion, "floating" on the surface of the mantle, is what gives volcanism and an atmosphere.

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