Scientists have just detected clouds on WASP-127b exoplanet 520 light-years from Earth using data from numerous telescopes.
Clouds make climate modeling on Earth challenging. Identifying, and perhaps defining atmospheric phenomena on distant planets is the next big exoplanet problem.
Scientists have discovered clouds on a gas giant exoplanet 520 light-years from Earth using data from numerous telescopes. The observations were so detailed that they were able to determine the altitude of the clouds and the structure of the upper atmosphere with unprecedented precision. Continued research will help us better comprehend exoplanet atmospheres and search for worlds with potentially habitable circumstances or biosignatures in their spectra.
The exoplanet in question is WASP-127b. Astronomers discovered it in 2016. It is a hot, puffy beast that orbits its star so close that its year is only 4.2 days long. The exoplanet is 1.3 times the size of Jupiter, but only 0.16 times the mass of Jupiter. This makes it one of the least dense or fluffiest exoplanets ever discovered.
Dr. Romain Allart’s presentation at the Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC) 2021 demonstrates how he and his team were able to expose the upper structure of the planet’s atmosphere by integrating data from a spacecraft and a ground-based observatory. This opens the door to similar research into a variety of other distant worlds.
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To gaze into different altitudes of WASP-127b’s atmosphere, they used infrared data from the Hubble Space Telescope and optical data from the ESPRESSO instrument on the ground-based Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.
First, they identified the presence of sodium, as they had seen before on this type of planet, but at a considerably lower altitude than they had expected. Second, there were substantial infrared water vapor signals but none at visible wavelengths. This means that clouds that are opaque at visible wavelengths but transparent in the infrared are screening water vapor at lower levels.
The researchers were able to narrow down the altitude of the clouds to a surprisingly low cloud layer with a pressure ranging between 0.3 and 0.5 millibars using the combined data from the two instruments.
We don’t know the clouds’ composition yet. However, they are not made up of water droplets like they are on Earth. It’s also a puzzle why scientists found sodium in such an unusual place on this planet.
It’s challenging to figure out the makeup of exoplanetary atmospheres. We can’t observe most exoplanets directly. Thus, we have to infer their presence based on their effects on their host stars. One of these is dimming and brightening. That’s when an exoplanet passes between us and a star, the star’s light dims slightly.
Future research will help scientists learn more about the atmosphere and WASP-127b generally. The exoplanet is proving to be an intriguing place.
WASP-127b receives 600 times more irradiation than the Earth. It also encounters temperatures of up to 1,100 degrees Celsius throughout its four-day orbit around its star. This expands the planet’s radius to 1.3 times that of Jupiter, but with barely a fifth of Jupiter’s mass. Thus, making it one of the least dense or fluffiest exoplanets yet identified. Fluffy exoplanets are easier to observe due to their stretched nature. Hence, making WASP-127b a perfect option for scientists working on the characterization of the atmosphere.
According to the team’s observations, WASP-127b orbits its host star in an unusual way.
All planets in the solar system orbit in the direction of the Sun’s rotation, in a more-or-less flat plane around the Sun’s equator. This is due to the solar system’s formation, which began with a disc of material swirling into the spinning Sun.
Meanwhile, WASP-127b orbits in the opposite direction of its star’s rotation. It also orbits its star at an extremely prominent angle, almost around the star’s poles. Scientists estimate the system to be roughly 10 billion years old, implying that something unusual is happening in that particular vicinity.
“Such alignment is unexpected for a hot Saturn in an old stellar system and might be caused by an unknown companion,” Allart said. “All these unique characteristics make WASP-127b a planet that will be very intensely studied in the future.” Hopefully, more research will be carried out to find out about its atmosphere and unique features.