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.
The hot Jupiter WASP-121b, discovered recently by Laetitia Delrez et al, is a very good opportunity for learning what the atmosphere of an exoplanet is made of. Being in a close, 1.27-day orbit around a hot star makes the atmosphere hot, while being a bloated planet of 1.9 Jupiter radii makes the atmosphere puffy. That means one can observe the planet in transit, projected against its star, and readily observe spectral features caused by the atmosphere absorbing star light.
Thomas Evans et al have pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at WASP-121b. To model the resulting spectrum they find they need an atmosphere containing titanium oxide, vanadium oxide, and iron hydride. In the plot below, models with these molecules are plotted red and yellow, and fit the observations, while models without, plotted in green and purple, do not.
The model also shows that WASP-121b has clear skies, rich in water vapour. It looks as though WASP-121b will become one of the most important exoplanets for such atmospheric characterisation work.
Transits of WASP-36b in multiple colours and from different nights.
A new paper by Luigi Mancini et al reports transits of the hot-Jupiter exoplanet WASP-36b in multiple colours. The point is to record the transit depth as a function of wavelength, and thus deduce how opaque the planet’s atmosphere is at different wavelengths. That, in turn, might tell us what the atmosphere is made of.
To do this Mancini et al have used the GROND instrument on ESO’s 2.2-m telescope, which records light in four different colours simultaneously. They observed four different transits of WASP-36b over 2012 to 2015.
The result is the figure below showing the transit depth in the four different passbands (greater depth implying a larger planet radius, plotted as the ratio of planet to star, Rb/RA).
The black crosses show the transit depth. The dashed versions are corrected for possible star-spots in the transit light curves. The coloured lines represent different atmospheric models.
The data show a clear and strong trend to greater depth in the blue, steeper than would be explained by any of the models shown. This means that something in the planet’s atmosphere is absorbing strongly at bluer wavelengths. What is causing this is unclear, and will require further investigation.