NASA have put out a press release entitled: “Hubble’s Tale of Two Exoplanets: Nature vs. Nurture”.
The article compares WASP-67b and HAT-P-38b, noting how similar they are in size and temperature, both orbiting similar stars at a similar orbital distance. But then Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 found that WASP-67b has a very cloudy atmosphere whereas HAT-P-38b has much clearer skies.
From the press release: Perhaps one planet formed differently than the other, under a different set of circumstances. “You can say it’s nature versus nurture,” explains co-investigator Kevin Stevenson. “Right now, they appear to have the same physical properties. So, if their measured composition is defined by their current state, then it should be the same for both planets. But that’s not the case. Instead, it looks like their formation histories could be playing an important role.”
“Astronomers measured how light from each parent star is filtered through each planet’s atmosphere. HAT-P-38 b did have a water signature indicated by the absorption-feature peak in the spectrum. This is interpreted as indicating the upper atmosphere is free of clouds or hazes. WASP-67 b, has a flat spectrum that lacks any water-absorption feature, suggesting most of the planet’s atmosphere is masked by high-altitude clouds.”
The NASA press release has been picked up and reported on several dozen science-related websites.
Credits: Artwork: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI); Science: NASA, ESA, and G. Bruno (STScI)
Orbiting a hot F-star in only 1.27 days, WASP-121b is a highly irradiated hot Jupiter found by Laëtitia Delrez et al using the WASP-South survey. A team led by Tom Evans at Exeter has now pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at WASP-121b and found that its atmosphere shows a “stratosphere”. That is, the higher layers of the atmosphere appear to be hotter than the lower layers.
This is possible if molecules high in the atmosphere absorb radiation very efficiently. The “stratosphere” interpretation comes from finding spectral features caused by water, but seeing them in emission (as expected if the atmospheric temperature increases with height) rather than in absorption (expected if the temperature declines with height).
The data show the Hubble spectrum observed during transit using the WFC3 instrument. The red line is a model including a stratosphere. The blue lines are, for comparison, colder “brown dwarfs” which don’t have a stratosphere. The WFC3 data (circles with error bars) clearly favour the stratosphere interpretation.
NASA have put out a press release about the discovery, while the press team at Exeter have produced an illustration of the highly irradiated planet:
The story has been picked up by CNN, The Telegraph, New Scientist, NDTV, phys.org, the Mail Online, the International Business Times, Gizmodo Australia and over 40 other news and science websites.
Many forefront facilities such as the Hubble Space Telescope and ESO’s Very Large Telescope are being pointed at exoplanets to try to find out what their atmospheres are made of. Yet such work is right at the limit of what can currently be done (though we hope that the James Webb Space Telescope will soon change that). So to what extent can we trust the results?
Here is an interesting puzzle. A new paper by Neale Gibson et al reports a spectrum of the atmosphere of WASP-31b, obtained with the FORS2 instrument on the VLT.
The spectrum is mostly flat, implying that the planet has a fairly cloudy atmosphere, but towards the right-hand side the orange line (a computed model) shows a strong emission line owing to potassium. The problem is that while one data point from previous HST data (small grey circle) indicates the presence of a strong potassium line, the new data from the VLT (the green-square data point) is incompatible with the HST data and would mean that there is no strong potassium line.
Gibson and co-authors put a lot of effort into trying to resolve the discrepancy, and consider whether Earth’s atmosphere might be contaminating the ground-based data, or whether unknown systematic uncertainties might be affecting the Hubble data. Overall they can only “highlight the need for caution” in interpreting such features. This illustrates that science at the cutting edge is never easy, and that much of an astronomer’s time is spent investigating whether one can trust the data one is working with.
The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to revolutionise the study of exoplanet atmospheres following its launch in 2018, and WASP planets will be among the prime targets. Paul Mollière et al have been simulating the data expected, and have produced this illustration of the atmospheric emission spectrum of WASP-18b.
The different coloured curves result from different assumptions about WASP-18b’s atmosphere. The lines along the bottom illustrate the spectral coverage of the different JWST instruments. In contrast to existing data (Spitzer results are shown as black squares), the JWST data will have both the spectral resolution and signal-to-noise to differentiate clearly between different models.
Mollière et al have also simulated spectra for cooler planets, such as WASP-10b and WASP-32b.
The different models are for different abundances of carbon relative to oxygen (C/O), showing that JWST should be able to settle the issue of which exoplanets have enhanced abundances of carbon relative to the Solar System.
Such simulations show that the results from JWST should be spectacular, opening up whole new areas of enquiry.
Most of the best detections of features in the atmospheres of transiting exoplanets have come from the Hubble Space Telescope, but time on hugely expensive satellites is in high demand and limited. Thus a recent paper led by Nikolay Nikolov from Exeter University is a welcome development. Nikolov and his team observed WASP-39b and detected a strong Sodium line from the planet, which indicates a clear atmosphere. The result came from the newly upgraded FORS2 spectrograph on ESO’s Very Large Telescope.
The important feature of the plot is that the VLT data (black) are every bit as good as those from a previous detection of the same line using the Hubble. While Hubble has the advantage of being in space, the VLT has a much larger mirror and can observe whole transits without the gaps seen in Hubble data owing to its low-Earth orbit.
The similar result from a very different facility also gives confidence in the correctness of such detections of features in exoplanet atmospheres, which are, after all, pushing current technology to its limits.
WASP-43b is the “hot Jupiter” exoplanet with the orbit closest-in to its star, producing an ultra-short orbital period of only 20 hours. The dayside face is thus strongly heated, making it a prime system for studying exoplanet atmospheres.
Kevin Stevenson et al have pointed NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope at WASP-43, covering the full orbit of the planet on three different occasions. Spitzer observed the infrared light from the heated face in two bands around 3.6 microns and 4.5 microns.
The three resulting “phase curves” are shown in the figure:
The 4.5-micron data from one visit are shown in red in the lower panel; the 3.6-micron data from the two other visits are in the upper panel. The transit (when the planet passes in front of the star) is at phase 1.0, and drops below the plotted figure. The planet occultation (when it passes behind the star) is at phase 0.5. The sinusoidal variation results from the heated face of the planet facing towards us (near phase 0.5) or away (near phase 1.0).
Intriguingly, the depth of the variation in the 3.6-micron data is clearly different between the two visits. Why is this? Well, Stevenson et al are not sure. One possibility is that the data are not well calibrated and that the difference results from systematic errors in the observations. After all, such observations are pushing the instruments to their very limits, beyond what they had been designed to do (back when no exoplanets were known and such observations were not conceived of).
More intriguingly, the planet might genuinely have been different on the different occasions. The authors report that, in order to model the spectra of the planet as it appears to be during the “blue” Visit 2 in the figure, the night-time face needs to be predominantly cloudy. But, if the clouds cleared, more heat would be let out and the infrared emission would be stronger. That might explain the higher flux during the “yellow” Visit 1. Here on Earth the sky regularly turns from cloudy to clear; is the same happening on WASP-43b?
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have put out a press release suggesting that clouds in exoplanet atmospheres might be preventing the detection of water that lies beneath the clouds, thus explaining why some hot Jupiters show signs of water while others don’t.
The release is based on work by Aishwarya Iyer et al, published in the Astrophysical Journal in June. Iyer et al made a comprehensive study of Hubble/WFC3 data for 19 transiting hot Jupiters, including many WASP planets.
Clouds in Hot-Jupiter atmospheres might be preventing space telescopes from detecting atmospheric water. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The press release has been extensively reported, being carried on over 40 news websites. In the UK the Daily Mail covered the story, and included a note about the recent Keele University-led discovery of five new hot Jupiters, WASP-119b, WASP-124b, WASP-126b, WASP-129b and WASP-133b.