Category Archives: exoplanet atmospheres

Aluminium oxide in the atmosphere of hot-Jupiter WASP-43b?

WASP-43b is one of the favourite planets for atmospheric characterisation, being in such a tight, short-period orbit that it is heated up by its host star, such that the molecules in its atmosphere should be easy to discern.

A new paper by Katy Chubb et al re-analyses observations made with the Hubble Space Telescope and concludes that the observations show signs of aluminium oxide.

It is important to realise that this work is not easy, being right at the limit of what can be done, even with Hubble. Neither the spectral resolution nor the signal-to-noise ratio of the data are sufficient to unambiguously discern features of particular molecules. Instead, the art is to guess the molecules that might be present, simulate the resulting spectrum if the guess were right, and then compare that to the observed spectrum. This leads to figures such as this, from Katy Chubb’s paper:

The grey lines are the data (shown as error bars). The coloured lines are the calculated model (with the coloured bands then allowing for uncertainties), and the grey diamonds are where error-free data would be if the model were perfect. The x-axis is wavelength, and the y-axis is the effective radius of the planet’s atmosphere at that wavelength, which tells us how good it is at absorbing light of that wavelength.

The bottom panel (orange) fits the data with water vapour only, while the upper panel (blue) includes both water and aluminium oxide. The later gives a significantly better fit. The authors write that, in addition to water, “AlO is the molecule that fits the data to the highest level of confidence”, while “We find no evidence of the presence of CO, CO2, or CH4“.

However this could be a puzzle, since: “AlO is not expected from the equilibrium chemistry at the temperatures and pressures of the atmospheric layer that is being probed by the observed data. Its presence therefore implies direct evidence of some disequilibrium processes with links to atmospheric dynamics.”

As with all current characterisation of exoplanet atmospheres, we await the James Webb Space Telescope (which has been designed to do this work; Hubble was designed before exoplanets were even known), to tell us how reliable the current results are.

The morning and evening terminators are different

Hot Jupiter exoplanets are “phase locked” by tidal forces, meaning that the same face of the planet always faces the star. Being blasted by radiation it is far hotter than the night side. This means that strong winds must be racing around the planet, redistributing the heat.

And that means that the “evening” terminator (where winds flow from the hot day-side face to the cooler night side) will be much hotter than the “morning” terminator (where winds flow from the night side to the day side). Here’s an illustration from a new paper by Ryan MacDonald, Jayesh Goyal and Nikole Lewis:

Of course the terminators are exactly the regions of the planet’s atmosphere that are being sampled by atmospheric-characterisation studies, since that’s the regions that are seen projected against the host star.

As Ryan MacDonald et al point out, most atmospheric-characterisation studies assume that the two limbs are the same, since that’s the easiest thing to do. However, the authors argue, while doing that might produce an acceptable fit to the data, the resulting parameter values could be very wrong.

Thus, the fitted temperature profile could be “hundreds of degrees cooler” than reality. As a result, the fitted abundances of molecular species could also be wrong. MacDonald et al conclude that: “these biases provide an explanation for the cold retrieved temperatures reported for WASP-17b and WASP-12b” and say that: “to overcome biases associated with 1D atmospheric models, there is an urgent need to develop multidimensional retrieval techniques”.

It’s raining iron on WASP-76b

ESO have produced a press release about a Nature paper on WASP-76b. The study was led by David Ehrenreich of the Geneva Observatory, and used observations with the new ESPRESSO spectrograph on the ESO VLT.

“The ultra-hot giant exoplanet has a day side where temperatures climb above 2400 degrees Celsius, high enough to vaporise metals. Strong winds carry iron vapour to the cooler night side where it condenses into iron droplets.”

“One could say that this planet gets rainy in the evening, except it rains iron,” says Ehrenreich. “The observations show that iron vapour is abundant in the atmosphere of the hot day side of WASP-76b,” adds María Osorio, chair of the ESPRESSO science team. “A fraction of this iron is injected into the night side owing to the planet’s rotation and atmospheric winds. There, the iron encounters much cooler environments, condenses and rains down.”

ESO have produced an artist’s impression of iron rain as dusk on WASP-76b:

Artist’s impression of the night side of WASP-76b (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser).

ESO have also produced videos of WASP-76b and its host star.

Media coverage from the press release includes The BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, the NY Times, Newsweek, NBC News, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, the Canberra Times, and others amounting to over 50 English-language articles plus coverage in German, French, Chinese, Polish, and other languages.

Detection of iron in the ultra-hot-Jupiter WASP-121b

Three papers this week arrived on arXiv about the ultra-hot-Jupiter WASP-121b. All three report similar findings (and the near-simultaneous arrival on arXiv presumably reflects the teams being aware of the competition). Cabot et al analyse spectra of WASP-121b from the ESO 3.6-m/HARPS spectrograph, Bourrier et al also analyse HARPS data, while Gibson et al analyse data from UVES on ESO’s 8-m VLT.

All three teams then apply velocity shifts to correct for the orbital motion of the star, in order to try to detect features from the planet. The result is a plot looking like (this is the one from Bourrier et al):

As in the plot for WASP-107b, just below, this shows the spectra as a function of time, through transit. The extra absorption during transit (delineated by dashed lines) is from the atmosphere of the planet absorbing starlight while it is projected against the star’s face. The faint diagonal feature (marked by the green line) is the signal from the planet’s atmosphere, moving with the planet’s orbital velocity.

A schematic of WASP-121b as it transits its hot star in a near-polar orbit (from Bourrier et al).

The three papers report the detection of lines from neutral iron in the planet’s atmosphere, and discuss the possible role of iron absorption in producing an atmospheric temperature inversion. The papers also report a blue-shift of the iron absorption, of order 5 km/s, which could be produced by strong winds running round the planet. That is expected in phase-locked planets, where heat from the irradiated face must be transported round to the night side.

Helium reveals the extended atmosphere of WASP-107b

Here’s a plot from a new paper on WASP-107b by James Kirk et al. It shows data taken with a near-infra-red spectrograph on the 10-m Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea, and is focused on the Helium line at 10833 Å. The plot shows the spectra as a function of time (y-axis), though a transit. When the planet passes in front of its host star (white horizontal lines are times of ingress and egress) the helium line shows excess absorption. This helium is in the atmosphere of the planet and is absorbing some of the starlight. There is a slight change in the wavelength of the absorption owing to the orbital motion of the planet (denoted by the dashed white lines).

The paper shows, firstly, that ground-based telescopes such as Keck can do a fine job of discerning the compositions of exoplanet atmospheres. Secondly, the fact that the absorption extends beyond transit-egress indicates that the atmosphere is boiling off the surface of WASP-107b, under the fierce irradiation of the star, and is forming a comet-like tail.

Water in exoplanet atmospheres

The Cambridge Institute of Astronomy have put out a press release based on a new paper analysing the water abundance in the atmospheres of 19 exoplanets, 11 of them being WASP planets.

The plot shows the measured water abundance versus the planet’s mass. Welbanks et al state that: “We find a mass–metallicity trend of increasing H2O abundances with decreasing mass”, and also that: “The H2O abundances in hot gas giants are likely due to low oxygen abundances relative to other elements rather than low overall metallicities, and provide new constraints on their formation mechanisms”.

The press release explains that: “The researchers found that while water vapour is common in the atmospheres of many exoplanets, the amounts were surprisingly lower than expected, while the amounts of other elements found in some planets were consistent with expectations”.

The press release has led to coverage in the Daily Express, Astronomy Now, and Science News, among other sites, accompanied by this graphic:

The atmosphere of the inflated hot Jupiter WASP-6b

Atmospheric characterisation of hot Jupiters continues apace, using both ground-based telescopes such as ESO’s Very Large Telescope and satellites such as Hubble.

Aarynn Carter et al have just produced a new analysis of WASP-6b:

The spectrum shows absorption due to sodium (Na), potassium (K) and water vapour, while the modelling implies that the atmosphere is partially hazy. Carter et al state that: “despite this presence of haze, WASP-6b remains a favourable object for future atmospheric characterisation with upcoming missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

The spectrum of the bloated, sub-Saturn-mass planet WASP-127b

Here is the latest analysis of the spectrum of WASP-127b, led by Jessica Spake and newly announced on arXiv.

The different datasets come from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Spake et al see obvious features from sodium, potassium, water and carbon dioxide. They conclude that the planet has a super-solar metallicity and that its skies are relatively cloud-free.

WASP-127b is a highly observable target since, despite being less than Saturn’s mass, it is bloated to larger than Jupiter. The puffy atmosphere projected against the host star gives results in a strong signal observable during transit. Spake et al look forward to observing the planet with the James Webb Space Telescope, and say: “the hint of a large absorption feature around 4.5 microns is strong evidence that future observations of WASP-127b with JWST will be able to measure the abundances of carbon-bearing species in its atmosphere”.

Looking forward to WASP-79b with JWST

The bloated hot-Jupiter WASP-79b has been selected as an Early Release Science target for the James Webb Space Telescope, so is being studied with current facilities such as HST and Spitzer.

Here is a simulation of what the spectrum of WASP-79b might look like when observed with JWST, taken from a new paper by Kristin Sotzen et al.

Sotzen et al have collected together data from HST, Spitzer and the Magellan telescope in order to model the atmosphere of the planet and use that to predict the results of the JWST observations. The different coloured symbols are for different instruments of JWST, namely NIRSpec, NIRCam and NIRISS. The main spectral features are caused by water and carbon dioxide molecules. With a partially cloudy atmosphere and detectable water features, Sotzen et al confirm that WASP-79b is a prime target for JWST.

WASP-121b observed by TESS

As is sometimes the way when prime observations are open access, two independent papers (Daylan et al 2019; Bourrier et al 2019) have, on the same day, announced independent analyses of the TESS lightcurve of the ultra-hot Jupiter WASP-121b.

The phase curve shows the transit (time zero), a “phase curve” modulation caused by the varying visibility of the heated face of the planet (illustrated by schematics of the planet), and the eclipse (when the planet passes behind the star, at −15 hr).

Both analyses report similar findings, saying that the heated “hot spot” directly faces the star, rather than being offset in phase, which suggests that any re-circulation of heat by planetary winds is inefficient.

The planet’s atmosphere shows a temperature inversion (it is hotter at higher altitudes), which could result from absorption of heat by molecules of titanium and vanadium oxide, and H-minus ions.