The labs that forge distant planets here on Earth

By Shannon Hall

Yingwei Fei and his colleagues had spent a month carefully crafting the three slivers of dense silicate — shiny and round, each sample was less than a millimetre thick. But in early November, it was time to say goodbye. Fei carefully packed the samples, plus a few back-ups, in foam and shipped them from Washington DC to Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, the Z Pulsed Power Facility at Sandia National Laboratories will soon send 26 million amps surging towards the slivers, zapping them, one by one, into dust.

The Z machine can replicate the extreme conditions inside detonating nuclear weapons. But Fei, a high-pressure experimental geologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Geophysical Laboratory in Washington DC, has a more otherworldly goal in mind: he hopes to explore how bridgmanite, a mineral found deep beneath Earth’s surface, would behave at the higher temperatures and pressures found inside larger rocky planets beyond the Solar System.

The experiment is one small contribution to exogeology: a research area that is bringing astronomers, planetary scientists and geologists together to explore what exoplanets might look like, geologically speaking. For many scientists, exogeology is a natural extension of the quest to identify worlds that could support life. Already, astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets and collected some of their vital statistics, including their masses and radii. Those that orbit in the habitable, or ‘Goldilocks’, zone — a region around the host star that is temperate enough for water to exist in liquid form — are thought to be particularly life-friendly.

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