Here’s a topic we’ll be hearing much more about: how the observed spectrum of a transiting exoplanet is affected by transiting across star-spots. In “transmission spectroscopy” the starlight shines through the planet’s atmosphere during transit, and the easiest thing to do is assume that the star itself is a uniform light source.
But as discussed by papers led by Ben Rackham, if the planet passes over a dark region (star spot) or bright region (faculae), this would change the observed spectrum.
A new paper led by Alex Bixel about WASP-4b is the first to attempt to correct for this effect. The authors’ transit observations show a clear crossing of a starspot (the feature is shown in blue, the spot shows as a upward bump since the planet is then removing less light):
And here is the difference it makes. The blue curve is the observed spectrum, presumed to be of the planet’s atmosphere. The orange curve is then the spectrum corrected for the presence of the star spot.
The details of how to do this are complex, and are discussed at length in the above papers. The central message is that “active FGK host stars can produce such features and care is warranted in interpreting transmission spectra from these systems”.
However, there is good news in that: “stellar contamination in transmission spectra of FGK-hosted exoplanets is generally less problematic than for exoplanets orbiting M dwarfs”, and that such signals “are generally minor at wavelengths of planetary atomic and molecular features”. Overall the authors say that their study “bodes well for high-precision observations of these targets”.
Earlier this year helium was found in the outer atmosphere of WASP-107b, the first detection of helium in an exoplanet. Several teams have now used similar techniques to find helium in WASP-69b, HAT-P-11b and HD 189733b, leading to a slew of papers and accompanying press releases from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, the University of Exeter and others (see ,, and ).
Artist’s impression of an escaping envelope of helium surrounding WASP-69b. (Credit: Gabriel Perez Diaz, IAC)
Lisa Nortmann, lead author of the WASP-69b paper, explains that the helium is escaping from the atmosphere, forming a comet-like tail: “We observed a stronger and longer-lasting dimming of the starlight in a region of the spectrum where helium gas absorbs light. The longer duration of this absorption allows us to infer the presence of a tail.”
The Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias have put out a press release on a new paper by von Essen et al, reporting a study of WASP-33b using the 10-meter Gran Telescopio Canarias.
WASP-33 is a hard system to analyse since the host star is a delta-Scuti star, which means that it pulsates. That produces transit lightcurves like these, where the usual transit profile has pulsations superimposed on it. The figure shows the transit in different wavebands across the optical, from blue to red, as obtained with the OSIRIS spectrograph. That meant that the authors first had to model and subtract the effect of the pulsations.
After doing that they analysed how the transit depth depended on wavelength, which reveals how the planet’s atmosphere absorbs light. “We find that the feature observed between 450 and 550 nm can best be explained by aluminium oxide in its atmosphere” says lead author, Carolina von Essen.
“The current models of exoplanetary atmospheres predict that the Ultra Hot Jupiters should be free of clouds, and present a range of oxides in the visible spectrum, such as vanadium oxide, titanium oxide, and aluminium oxide”. This work on WASP-33b is the first observational indication of the presence of aluminium oxide.
The latest Hubble Space Telescope spectrum of a WASP exoplanet has just been published by Thomas Evans et al. The spectrum of WASP-121b extends from near-UV wavelengths through the optical to the infra-red, combining data from three different gratings (shown in different colours in the figure):
Of particular interest is the rapid rise in the data in the near-UV (the extreme left of the plot), which is clearly out of line with the fitted model (purple lines). The rise is too rapid to be attributed to Rayleigh scattering in a clear atmosphere.
Instead, the authors suggest that it is due to sulfanyl, a molecule consisting of one sulfur and one hydrogen. Evans et al conclude that the near-UV absorber “likely captures a significant amount of incident stellar radiation at low pressures, thus playing a significant role in the overall energy budget, thermal structure, and circulation of the atmosphere”.
The work points to the ongoing importance of the Hubble Space Telescope, even after the James Webb Space Telescope is launched, since the JWST is designed for infrared astronomy, and can’t see the near-UV wavelengths that can be observed with Hubble.
Update: One of the authors, Jo Barstow, has tweeted the following thread on the @astrotweeps account:
Thomas Beatty et al have an interesting new paper on arXiv today, primarily about the transiting brown dwarf KELT-1b. They’ve used the Spitzer Space Telescope to record the infra-red light as it varies around the 1.3-day orbit.
They end up with the following plots (KELT-1b is on the right, with the plot for the planet WASP-43b on the left):
The x-axis is “colour”, the difference in flux between two infra-red passbands at 3.6 and 4.5 microns. The y-axis is brightness (in the 3.6 micron band). The underlying orange and red squares show where typical M-dwarf stars and L and T brown dwarfs fall on the plot.
The solid-line “loops” are then the change in position of the atmospheres of KELT-1b and WASP-43b around their orbits. At some phases we see their “day” side, heated by the flux of their star, and at others we see their cooler “night” side.
The blue line is the track where something would lie if there were no clouds in its atmosphere. The fact that KELT-1b’s loop doesn’t follow the blue track, but moves significantly right (to cooler colours) implies that the night side of the brown dwarf must be cloudy. The night side of WASP-43b, however, appears to be less cloudy, according to its track.
Here are the same plots for two more planets:
The plot for WASP-19b shows a loop with a marked excursion to the right, suggesting a cloudy night side to the planet. For WASP-18b, however, the loop follows a trajectory nearer the blue “no cloud” track, suggesting a clearer atmosphere.
NASA JPL have put out a press release about ultra-hot Jupiters including WASP-18b, WASP-103b and WASP-121b.
The work, led by Vivien Parmentier, used the Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes to study how the planets’ atmospheres change from the irradiated day side to the cooler night side.
“Due to strong irradiation on the planet’s daysides, temperatures there get so intense that water molecules are completely torn apart. […] fierce winds may blow the sundered water molecules into the planets’ nightside hemispheres. On the cooler, dark side of the planet, the atoms can recombine into molecules and condense into clouds, all before drifting back into the dayside to be splintered again.”
Simulated views of the ultrahot Jupiter WASP-121b show what the planet might look like to the human eye from five different vantage points, illuminated to different degrees by its parent star. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Vivien Parmentier/Aix-Marseille University)
“With these studies, we are bringing some of the century-old knowledge gained from studying the astrophysics of stars, to the new field of investigating exoplanetary atmospheres,” said Parmentier.
Harvard’s CfA have also produced a press release on the work, focusing on the analysis of WASP-103b led by Laura Kreidberg.
“A crucial observational advance by Kreidberg and her team was that they observed the planet for an entire orbit, enabling them to map the climate at every longitude and derive detailed information about the temperatures on the planet’s dayside and nightside. This is only the second time that such a complete exoplanet observation has been performed with HST.”
Star spots are cooler regions of a star’s surface, caused by magnetic activity, and emit less light. If a planet transits across a spot it blocks less light, and so we see a slight rise, a bump, in the transit profile.
On the left (in blue) is a transit from a new paper by Espinoza et al, who have observed transits of WASP-19b with the Magellan telescope. A clear bump is seen, indicating that the planet passed over a cooler spot.
On the right (in red), however, is another transit showing a clear dip compared to the expected transit lightcurve. This implies that during this transit the planet passed over a brighter region on the star. This is the first time such an event has been seen.
The authors deduce that the bright spot must have a size of about a quarter of the stellar radius and must be 100 K hotter than the rest of the star. Such regions are not seen on our own Sun.
The main point of the observations, however, was not studying spots but studying the planet’s atmosphere by recording how the transit depth changes with wavelength. Here is the state-of-play for the spectrum of WASP-19b, covering optical to infra-red wavelengths:
The red data-points are from the Hubble Space Telescope, showing a spectral feature, but the new data by Espinoza et al (white points) are consistent with a flat spectrum within the limits of the data.