Author Archives: waspplanets

Outer-orbiting companions of hot-Jupiter planets appear to be co-planar

On-going radial-velocity monitoring of WASP hot Jupiters has shown that some of them have companions, additional Jupiter-mass planets in much wider orbits.

This might be part of the answer as to why there are hot Jupiters at all. Standard planet-formation theory suggests that they must form much further out, where it is colder and where ice can form, enabling bits of pre-planetary debris to clump together. Thus one solution is that gravitational perturbations by third bodies (wide-orbit massive planets or companion stars) push the inner planets into highly eccentric orbits, where tidal capture then circularises them into hot-Jupiter orbits.

But, if this “Kozai effect” is to work, the outer planets need to be in orbits tilted with respect to the orbits of the hot Jupiters. This requires i < 65 degrees, rather than the co-planar i = 90 degrees.

A new paper by Juliette Becker et al reports an analysis of six hot-Jupiter systems orbiting cool stars that have an outer planetary companion. These are WASP-22, WASP-41, WASP-47, WASP-53, HAT-P-4 and HAT-P-13. Though a statistical analysis they show that the outer planets are most likely co-planar, with orbits tilted by no more than 20 degrees. They thus argue that Kozai-driven high-eccentricity migration is not the dominant way of forming hot Jupiters.


Precise masses for the WASP-47 exoplanetary system

In the discovery paper the exoplanet WASP-47b was introduced to the world with the description: “With an orbital period of 4.16 d, a mass of 1.14 MJup and a radius of 1.15 RJup, WASP-47b is an entirely typical hot Jupiter”.

And it did appear to be entirely typical until Juliette Becker et al looked at K2 lightcurves and found two more planets, a super-Earth orbiting inside the hot Jupiter (WASP-47e in a 0.79-d orbit) and a Neptune orbiting just outside it (WASP-47d in a 9-d orbit). Around the same time Neveu-VanMalle et al announced long-term monitoring showing another Jupiter-mass planet (WASP-47c), this one in a much wider orbit of 580 days. Thus WASP-47 was shown to host a whole exoplanetary system, one that is so-far unique.

Since then WASP-47 has been observed intensively in order to measure the planet masses and investigate the dynamics of the exoplanetary system. The state of play is now reported by Andrew Vanderburg et al. The planets’ host star is tugged around by the gravitational pull of the orbiting planets, leading to the following cyclical variations in the observed radial velocities:

Combining all the information, Vanderburg et al deduce that the innermost “super-Earth”, WASP-47e, is not dense enough to be made only of rock. Instead it likely has a liquid or gaseous envelope (possibly water or steam) surrounding an Earth-like core. That is unlike other ultra-short-period super-Earths which appear to be fully rocky.

From modelling the dynamical history of the system Vanderburg et al also deduce that the outermost planet, WASP-47c, is likely in an orbit that is in the same plane as those of the inner planets. If this were not the case then the system would not be stable. Thus they conclude that the likelihood that WASP-47c also transits its star, as seen from Earth, is relatively high, which should motivate a campaign to look for those transits.

First results on the atmosphere of WASP-107b

Being a Neptune-mass planet (0.12 MJ) bloated to a near-Jupiter radius (0.94 RJ) makes WASP-107b’s atmosphere very fluffy, and that, coupled with it transiting a moderately bright K star (V = 11.6) makes it a superb target for atmospheric characterisation.

Laura Kreidberg et al have pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at WASP-107b to make the first atmospheric study. Here’s the WFC3 spectrum:

Hubble Space Telescope spectrum of WASP-107b

The broad features at 1.15 and 1.4 microns are due to water absorption in WASP-107b’s atmosphere. Kreidberg et al model the features, finding that they are compatible with expectations given solar abundances. They are not deep enough, though, to be produced by fully clear skies, and a layer of high-altitude cloud is also required.

WASP-107b is one of the prime exoplanets already chosen for early observations with the imminent James Webb Space Telescope, so it is exciting to know that its atmosphere does show prominent molecular features.

Outer orbits of binary stars hosting WASP planets

Many of the WASP transiting exoplanets have a companion star visible close to the planet-host star, and these are usually genuine binary companions rather than chance alignments. This raises questions as to whether the gravitational perturbation of the companion affects the planet formation, and whether the cumulative affect of perturbations alters the planetary orbits.

The very existence of close-in hot-Jupiter planets might owe to the Kozai effect, in which companion stars perturb planets into highly eccentric orbits that have very close approaches to their host star, leading to tidal capture into close, circular hot-Jupiter orbits.

A new paper led by Daniel Evans, from Keele University, uses lucky-imaging techniques to look for close companions of known exoplanet hosts. For the first time, they also report observations of the companions over several epochs, which then gives constraints on their orbits.

The above figure for WASP-77 (left) and WASP-85 (right) shows the observed locations of the companion stars (black symbols; the scale is in Astronomical Units from the planet-host star). The blue lines are possible orbits, computed to be consistent with the data. In both cases the companion stars are shown to be in moderately eccentric orbits with separations of hundreds of AU.

Titanium oxide in the atmosphere of WASP-19b

The European Southern Observatory have put out press release about observations of WASP-19b with the Very Large Telescope. A team led by ESO Fellow Elyar Sedaghati have found titanium oxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet for the first time.

ESO’s graphic (credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser) illustrates how observations during transit allow us to analyse an exoplanet’s atmosphere. The star light shines through the atmosphere, where light at particular wavelengths is absorbed by molecules, causing the light that we see to carry a distinctive signature of the atmosphere’s composition.

The team observed three different transits of WASP-19b, each in a different colour, to produce one of the best transmission spectra of an exoplanet so far. The titanium oxide (TiO) features are marked, along with those from water (H2O), sodium (Na) and scattering due to haze.

ESO’s press release has led to coverage on several dozen news- and science-related websites. ESO have also produced an artist’s impression of WASP-19b:

WASP-12b a “Blistering Pitch-Black Planet”.

NASA has put out a press release about Hubble Space Telescope observations of WASP-12b. Taylor Bell et al find that WASP-12b “traps at least 94 percent of the visible starlight falling into its atmosphere”, making it “as black as fresh asphalt”.

WASP-12b “as black as asphalt” (Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon, STScI)

The article explains that WASP-12b, in a very close, 1.2-day orbit, is so irradiated by its host star that “clouds probably cannot form to reflect light back into space. Instead, incoming light penetrates deep into the planet’s atmosphere where it is absorbed by hydrogen atoms and converted to heat energy”. NASA’s press release has led to coverage on several dozen websites.

WASP-12b is one of the more important of the WASP discoveries, with over 30 refereed papers so far focused on understanding it. Most notably, the fierce stellar irradiation means that material is boiling off the planet and forming a cloud surrounding it.

Strong Sodium and Potassium absorption in the atmosphere of WASP-103b

Characterising the atmospheres of extrasolar planets is a booming activity, both from ground-based observatories and using the Hubble Space Telescope. The latest study is of the highly-irradiated and hot planet WASP-103b, which was found by WASP-South transiting a star with an ultra-short orbit of only 0.93 days (Michaël Gillon et al 2014).

Monika Lendl et al have now used the Gemini/GMOS instrument to probe its atmosphere. The main finding is prominent features caused by absorption of light by sodium (Na) and potassium (K) ions:

Such features imply that WASP-103b has relatively clear skies, since cloudy or hazy atmospheres tend to produce flat, featureless spectra. The authors explain that: “This finding is in line with previous studies on cloud occurrence on exoplanets which find that clouds dominate the transmission spectra of cool, low surface gravity planets while hot, high surface gravity planets are either cloud-free, or possess clouds located below the altitudes probed by transmission spectra”.