Category Archives: exoplanet atmospheres

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.


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”.

Hubble’s tale of two exoplanets: WASP-67b and HAT-P-38b

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)

Hubble finds a stratosphere in WASP-121b

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,, the Mail Online, the International Business Times, Gizmodo Australia and over 40 other news and science websites.

Is there potassium in WASP-31b’s atmosphere?

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.

VLT/FORS2 Spectrum of the atmosphere of exoplanet WASP-31b

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.