Faraway Planets Could Have Oceans Of Magma

12:16 minutes

A large blue planet on the right, and a very small, bright red planet on its lower left.
This artist’s concept shows what exoplanet K2-18 b could look like. Credit: NASA, CSA, ESA, J. Olmsted (STScI)

Far beyond our solar system are hycean planets—planets that have hydrogen-rich atmospheres and are covered in giant oceans. Scientists have long believed that those oceans were made of water, but a new study throws a wrench in that idea, suggesting that they could actually be oceans of magma.

SciFri’s John Dankosky talks with Sophie Bushwick, senior news editor at New Scientist based in NYC, about this and other science news of the week, including a new type of thunderstorm, how droughts are affecting the Panama Canal, inhalable nanoparticles that could carry antibiotics, which dog breeds live longest, and a fern whose dying leaves can sprout roots.

Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is Science Friday. I’m Kathleen Davis.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And I’m John Dankosky. We’re sitting in for Ira Flatow this week.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Later in the hour, a physician reflects on just how deeply systemic racism is woven into the US health care system, and we’ll hear the sounds of space.

JOHN DANKOSKY: But first, way, way beyond our solar system, we’ve found evidence of hycean planets, planets with hydrogen-rich atmospheres and covered in giant oceans. Now, scientists believe that those oceans were possibly made of water. But a new study throws a wrench in that idea by suggesting those oceans could actually be made of magma. Yeah, that’s pretty terrifying.

Here with the story and more science news of the week is Sophie Bushwick, senior news editor at New Scientist. She’s based in New York City. Sophie, always good to talk with you. Thanks so much for joining us.


JOHN DANKOSKY: So tell me more about these hycean planets and why scientists are suddenly thinking magma now in the oceans.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. Researchers were looking at this one particular hycean world called K12-18b. And they realized it was very hot, so hot that if it really did have liquid oceans made of water, they would have boiled off of it. So they started thinking, what else could we be seeing here?

So the reason that we think hycean worlds have these oceans in the first place is from observing the chemistry in their atmospheres. And the researchers decided, well, what would the chemistry in the atmosphere look like if, instead of liquid water oceans, we had these magma oceans? And they found out that it would pretty much look the same.

So given the heat on this planet, they think maybe it’s not water oceans at all. It’s these magma oceans. Or at least they could be the same.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s really surprising. Why couldn’t we tell the difference? There’s kind of, I don’t know, a big difference between magma and water covering a world.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Totally. We’re talking about planets that are so distant that we can’t just look at them. So researchers have to take the observations they have, which are things like atmospheric chemistry, and then they have to figure out what they can about the planet based on those clues.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So why exactly should we care so much about these hycean planets in the first place?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So hycean planets, partially because we think of them as having this liquid water, are great candidates for looking for alien life because, if you’re a life form, it’s pretty helpful to have some of that lovely liquid water. But the idea that maybe some of them just have these magma oceans, that’s not quite so friendly to critters.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I was going to say you might check that one off the list.



JOHN DANKOSKY: We’ll move on to the next planet. And let’s move on to the next story. There’s another force of nature that’s actually in the science news this week. It’s a new type of thunderstorm, and that also sounds pretty scary. What’s this new storm all about, Sophie?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So researchers have used satellite imagery to look at these thunderstorms that are happening over the ocean. Now, they’re particularly looking in the area of the Gulf of Mexico and the ocean east of South Africa. And they’ve seen these storms where the lightning strikes are super dense, and when I say dense, I mean you’re having a ton of lightning in a very short period of time and small place, as in eight lightning strikes per second.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Eight second.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Per second. In fact, the reason they found this was because, in the satellite images, it looked like there was just one long continuous flash, in some cases, that lasted 29 seconds. And they think that this isn’t actually a continuous flash. It’s lightning striking so quickly and in such quick succession that we just see it as that.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So how is this different from the lightning we usually see? Obviously, it’s more grouped together, but what else is different about it as far as we know?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This lightning is striking more densely. So it’s happening closer together in time, closer together in space, and this would be pretty scary if you were under one of these storms. Thankfully so far, we’ve been just observing them in places over the ocean where they haven’t been interfering with ships or anything. But the worry is, as the climate changes, could this type of storm become possible over land? Could it move into more inhabited areas of the ocean? And if that’s the case, that would be a problem.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So it’s potentially a climate change problem. It’s the sort of thing that we might be seeing more of, whether it’s over the oceans or over land?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, to find that out, researchers need more observations. So far, they’ve just been looking at these satellite images. But what they want to do now is to put some instruments on oil rigs and ships that might be in this area and get better observations of how these storms act and how they form in the first place.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. So another extreme weather event, a big drought that’s affecting passage through the Panama Canal– this is really fascinating. We hear about drought and what it does for ecosystems and environments across the world. But here’s something where a drought is actually affecting the way that we get our products through the Panama Canal.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So the Panama Canal is super reliant on fresh water. Basically, it fills locks with water to move ships around. So first, the ships get lifted up above sea level as they move through the first part of the canal. Then they move through the central part, and then more locks lower them back down to sea level on the other side. And filling up all those locks takes a lot of water.

And when you’ve got drought conditions, it just slows everything down. Fewer ships can get through. In some cases, the water levels in the central part of the canal are so low that certain sizes of ships can’t pass at all, or they might need to offload some of their cargo before they can go. It just creates this bottleneck that slows a lot of things down. And so in addition to some ships just sort of waiting in line to get through the canal, we’ve got other ships that are trying to go around the continents instead to take different shipping routes that are longer, and slower, and produce more greenhouse gas emissions.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Of course. I was going to say more greenhouse gas emissions. How bad is the bottleneck right now?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s as bad as it’s been since the US invaded Panama in 1989 and the canal was closed. That’s the only time it’s been worse than it is now. In December, it was about 22 ships a day going through, which is very slow.

JOHN DANKOSKY: What else is causing this drought?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, right now, we’re in El Niño. We’ve got El Niño conditions, and that’s also contributing to the drought. So people are hoping that, as those conditions pass, the canal will be able to get back to business. But the problem is that this kind of drought just becomes more likely as climate change is changing our world, and so it’s possible that we’re going to have more problems like this.

And the other issue is that this freshwater, it’s not just used in the canal. So there’s a millions of people who need drinking water. There’s agricultural needs for fresh water, and they’re going to have to compete with the canal.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. It seems as though some of the systems that we’ve created a long time ago, maybe they’re not going to exactly react this well to a changing world. We might have to think about how much freshwater we’re using to get ships from one part of the world to the other.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. A lot of our infrastructure was built for certain conditions. It was built a long time ago. The Panama Canal was completed in 1914, and the weather conditions then were just different than they are now. And so there’s a lot of other infrastructure like that. And in some cases, it’s dealing with drought, in some cases, different temperatures and the higher likelihood of certain kinds of storms. And so yeah, we’re going to have to rethink a lot of our infrastructure.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. So we’ve talked about incredibly crazy storms. We’ve talked about magma planets. And we’ve talked about climate change and shipping problems. So can we get to something that’s, I don’t know, a little bit more optimistic here, Sophie?



SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. Let’s go positive.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let’s go positive here. Scientists are developing nanoparticles that you can inhale to help treat lung disease. So tell us a little bit more about these particles and how they work.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. Researchers took these nanoparticles that were infused with antibiotics, and they tested them in mice that had a disease similar to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, which is a disease that affects humans. And the problem with this disease is it creates a lot of mucus in the lungs, and it’s hard to deliver medication.

So what these nanoparticles do is they actually move through the mucus before they release their medication, and that enables it to be delivered to the parts of the body that need it most. And in these mice that they tested, the nanoparticles really did seem to help them. It reduced the amount of bacteria in their lungs. It reduced the amount of inflammation. And it seems that their lungs functioned better after they’d had this treatment.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this sounds remarkable. But of course, the caveat, as always, this is a mouse study, so it’s going to be a long time before we see anything like this that could appear at our pharmacy.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. These results seem pretty promising, which is good. But anything that you test in mice, it’s not a guarantee that it’s going to work in people. It’s just a kind of sign that like, hey, this kind of cool idea might have legs. Let’s test it more and find out if it works for humans.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let’s move on to a story about a man’s best friend. I’m a cat person, but a lot of people love dogs. It’s a new study about how certain breeds might live longer than others. What exactly did it find?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is a really big study. So researchers were looking at almost 600,000 dogs in the UK, about 155 different breeds, just a ton of animals, and they were looking at longevity. What they found is, if you have a smaller dog with a longer nose– so think a breed like a miniature dachshund or a Shiba Inu, that’s going to live the longest. On the other side of the spectrum, medium-sized breeds with flatter faces, like English Bulldogs, they’re not going to live as long.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I think that a lot of this is stuff that dog owners have known for some time. A lot of dogs with those flat faces, little pugs, they have some trouble breathing. Is that what this is about?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. The problem with– if you have trouble breathing, it causes other problems. So in addition to breathing problems, flat-faced dogs tend to have digestive issues. They can have sleep problems. All of that can contribute to a shorter lifespan.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So what exactly are we supposed to do with information like this? Is there anything that we can do in terms of dog breeding that might change because of a study like this?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, I guess if you’re a dog breeder, you could look at the traits that contribute to longevity, and you could say, maybe I want to prioritize these things. And maybe I want to deprioritize things like flat faces. Maybe I want to try to breed animals that don’t have those traits or that have less extreme versions of those traits.

But studies like this are also just interesting because they can confirm ideas that we’ve long held. Or they can show that something’s a false belief. So for instance, they found that female dogs tended to live a little bit longer than male dogs. I don’t think that’s particularly surprising.

But they also found that purebreds had a slightly greater life expectancy than crossbreeds. When I was younger, my family had a dog that was part golden retriever and part poodle, and they said that this kind of dog has hybrid vigor because it’s a crossbreed. But it turns out that maybe hybrid vigor isn’t actually contributing to longevity. So I think that’s a really interesting thing to know.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’ve got time for one more story here. And this is about the plant kingdom, and it’s about zombie ferns.


JOHN DANKOSKY: Maybe you can explain what these zombie ferns do, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. These zombie ferns have a second life. So what’s really cool is the way researchers discovered them. So they totally discovered these zombie ferns by accident– I’m going to keep calling them that– because they were on an expedition, and they were trying to clear some ground in a forest in Panama. And they realized that some of the ferns they were clearing out of the way, they had these dead leaves that had drooped over onto the ground, and they were just touching the ground, so the researchers thought.

But when they tried to move them out of the way, they found that these leaves had actually put down roots into the ground, these little rootlets. And what they found was these dead leaves had actually– the ends had gone to the ground, and the tips of them had sprouted rootlets. And those rootlets were able to take nutrients out of the ground and to feed it back to the plant.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s so wild, and we’ve never really seen this before.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: No, we’ve never seen a plant recycling its dead leaves in this way and turning them into roots, so it’s very cool.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That is very cool and a good place for us to end our news roundup this week. Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist. She’s based in New York City. Always great to have you, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you. It’s always great to be here.

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Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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