Category Archives: exoplanet atmospheres

Two K2 planets transiting bright stars

With the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope only a year away the exoplanet community is gearing up to exploit its capability for characterising exoplanet atmospheres. A new paper by Yu et al contains a plot of the best targets, giving the expected “signal to noise” for each planet as a function of the planet’s mass. The higher the S/N the better, enabling more atmospheric features to be discerned.

It is notable that most of the best targets do not come from Kepler (which had a relatively small field of view, and so looked at mainly fainter stars), but instead from the ground-based transit surveys (which focus mainly on brighter stars, which are thus better targets for follow-up). WASP features strongly, supplying half of the best targets.

The focus of the Yu et al paper, however, is the discovery of two very good targets from the K2 phase of Kepler‘s mission. K2 is observing more fields for less time than the original Kepler, and so covers more bright stars.

HD 89345b (labelled in red above) is only 10% of Jupiter’s mass but is bloated to 0.6 Jupiter radii. Transiting a bright star of V = 9.4 makes it a prime target.

The transit depth of only 0.15% means that it is too shallow to have been detected by WASP (which can do 0.2–0.3% at best), especially given the 11.8-day orbit, which means that it produces fewer transits than shorter-period planets.

The other new discovery, HD 286123b (which had also been independently found by Brahm et al), is a larger and more massive planet producing a 0.8% dip. This one should have been within the reach of the WASP survey, but happens to lie in a region of the Northern sky where SuperWASP-North has only limited data.


Comprehensive Spectrum of WASP-39b

NASA, ESA and JPL have put out press releases on the atmospheric spectrum of WASP-39b. The paper by Hannah Wakeford et al combined Hubble and Spitzer data to produce a comprehensive spectrum with broad spectral coverage.

“Using Hubble and Spitzer, the team has captured the most complete spectrum of an exoplanet’s atmosphere possible with present-day technology. “This spectrum is thus far the most beautiful example we have of what a clear exoplanet atmosphere looks like,” said Wakeford.”

“WASP-39b shows exoplanets can have much different compositions than those of our solar system,” said co-author David Sing of the University of Exeter. “Hopefully, this diversity we see in exoplanets will give us clues in figuring out all the different ways a planet can form and evolve.”

The strongest features in the spectrum are caused by water:

“Although the researchers predicted they’d see water, they were surprised by how much water they found in this “hot Saturn.” Because WASP-39b has so much more water than our famously ringed neighbor, it must have formed differently. The amount of water suggests that the planet actually developed far away from the star, where it was bombarded by a lot of icy material. WASP-39b likely had an interesting evolutionary history as it migrated in, taking an epic journey across its planetary system and perhaps obliterating planetary objects in its path.”

Coverage of the press release includes that by Newsweek, the International Business Times, the Daily Mail and about 30 other websites.

Heat redistribution in hot-Jupiter atmospheres by hydrogen ionisation

Since hot Jupiter exoplanets are “phase locked” by tidal interactions (that is, the same side always faces the host star, just as the same side of our moon always faces us), there will be a large flow of heat from the highly irradiated “day side” to the cooler “night side”. This is thought to result in very strong winds rushing around the planet’s atmosphere.

Taylor Bell and Nicolas Cowan have pointed out that hydrogen will tend to be ionised on the day-side face. After flowing to the cooler face in a wind, it will then tend to recombine into neutral atoms, and thus will enhance the transport of heat.

The result is that either heat redistribution will be more effective than previously thought, helping to explain some observations of hot Jupiters, or the winds need be less strong than thought.

Bell and Cowan calculate the difference for WASP-12b. The plot shows models of the difference in temperature (x axis) against the offset of the “hot spot” caused by heat flow (y axis). The different colour coding shows the wind speed. The plot then shows the difference between models including hydrogen recombination, versus previous models by Schwartz. For a given wind speed, including hydrogen recombination results in a larger offset angle, and thus more redistribution of heat.

WASP-18b has a smothering stratosphere without water

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory have put out press releases about observations of WASP-18b with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

The main finding is that WASP-18b, a highly irradiated hot Jupiter in a tight orbit around a hot F-type star, is “wrapped in a smothering stratosphere loaded with carbon monoxide and devoid of water”.

The team determined this by detecting two types of carbon monoxide signatures, an absorption signature at a wavelength of about 1.6 micrometers and an emission signature at about 4.5 micrometers.”

The findings have been reported in many media outlets including: Newsweek, The Independent, The Sun, the Daily Mail, the International Business Times,, and more than 20 other websites including Forbes magazine, who have produced the following infographic:

Wide-coverage spectrum of exoplanet WASP-39b

WASP-39b is turning out to be one of the more important WASP discoveries, being observed with the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope and large ground-based telescopes such as the VLT. This is because, as a Saturn-mass planet with a bloated radius, it has a low surface gravity and so is ideal for atmospheric characterisation. Further, it has relatively clear skies showing spectral features.

Now a team led by Hannah Wakeford from Exeter University have put the different data-sets together to produce the widest-coverage spectrum of the planet so far:

The dominant spectral features are due to water vapour, while there are narrower lines due to sodium (Na) and potassium (K) and a Rayleigh-scattering slope at the blue end.

The main finding from fitting the water features is that the atmospheric metallicity must be at least 100 times that of the sun. This high value shows the diversity of exoplanets. The authors conclude that “WASP-39b is an ideal target for follow-up studies with the James Webb Space Telescope”.

WASP planets selected for James Webb Space Telescope ERS and GTO

Studying the atmospheres of exoplanets is one of the main goals of the James Webb Space Telescope, now scheduled for launch in mid 2019. The mission recently asked for proposals for “Early Release Science”, observations to test out the instruments, show what JWST can so, and supply the community with data to start analysing.

Of 13 ERS proposals accepted, the “The Transiting Exoplanet Community ERS Program”, led by Kepler lead-scientist Natalie Batalha, got all the time it asked for.

WASP planets feature heavily in the ERS program, since many transit relatively bright stars. Large, puffy gaseous planets will also give the strongest and clearest signals of atmospheric features, and so are optimum early targets. While JWST will want to look also at atmospheres of smaller, rocky planets, “Astronomers initially will train their gaze onto gaseous Jupiter-sized worlds like WASP-39b and WASP-43b because they are easier targets on which to [look for the chemical fingerprints of the atmosphere’s gases]”.

The target list for the ERS proposal is currently being finalised in the light of the recent delay in JWST launch from 2018 to 2019, though an earlier draft of the proposal featured 7 WASP planets out of 12 targets.

Further, the four GTO teams have also selected WASP planets for early JWST observations. GTO time (“Guaranteed Time Observations”) is time allocated to the teams who built the JWST instruments as a reward and incentive. All four instrument teams have picked WASP planets, including WASP-17b, WASP-52b, WASP-43b, WASP-69b, WASP-77Ab, WASP-80b, WASP-107b and WASP-121b.

Meanwhile, Kevin Heng, of the University of Bern, has written a popular-level account for American Scientist of how JWST is expected to revolutionise the study of exoplanet atmospheres.

Hot Jupiter irradiation and the efficiency of heat recirculation

Here’s an interesting plot from a new paper by Michael Zhang et al.

The x-axis is the irradiation temperature for a sample of hot-Jupiter exoplanets; that is, how blasted the day-side of their atmosphere is by irradiation from the host star. This depends on the temperature of the star, its size, and the closeness of the orbit.

The heat of the day side of the planet is then transported to the night side by winds (the planets are phase-locked, so the same side always faces the star). The efficiency of this re-circulation of heat then determines whether the hottest regions of the planet are directly facing the star, or whether they are offset by some angle. This angle can by measured by looking at the “phase curve” radiation in the infra-red.

The y-axis then shows the observed offset angle as a function of the irradiation. The plot shows that the offset angle appears to be highest for cooler planets, and then decreases as irradiation increases, but then perhaps increases again for the very hottest planets such as WASP-33b.

There is, however, also a lot of scatter in the plot. The authors speculate that this might result from differing metallicities of the planets, which affects how well they form clouds, which can then determine the albedo of the planet, and thus how much irradiation is simply reflected.