Category Archives: exoplanet atmospheres

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.

Night-side temperatures of hot Jupiters

A team from McGill University have put out a press release about the nightsides of hot Jupiter exoplanets, which, given that hot Jupiters are phase-locked, always point away from their star. Dylan Keating et al collected observations with the Spitzer Space Telescope for a sample of 12 hot Jupiters, including 7 WASP exoplanets.

They find that, while the heated daysides show a range of temperatures, the nightsides always have a similar temperature:

“The uniformity of the nightside temperatures suggests that clouds on this side of the planets are likely very similar to one another in composition. Our data suggest that these clouds are likely made of minerals such as manganese sulfide or silicates, or rocks”, Keating explained.

Caption: Schematic of clouds on the night side of a hot Jupiter exoplanet. The underlying atmosphere is over 800 C, hot enough to vaporize rocks. Atmospheric motion from the deep atmosphere or from the hotter dayside bring the rock vapour to cooler regions, where it condenses into clouds, and possibly rains down into the atmosphere below. These clouds of condensed rock block outgoing thermal radiation, making the planet’s nightside appear relatively cool from space. Credit: McGill University

The work has led to press coverage by Fox News, Sci News, UPI, and other websites.

Hints of volcanic exo-moons?

A new paper by Apurva Oza et al has proposed the interesting idea that spectral features of sodium, previously attributed to the atmospheres of hot-Jupiter exoplanets, could actually be caused by volcanos on exo-moons orbiting the planets. The volcanos would produce a cloud of material surrounding the planet:

They suggest that WASP-49b might be the prime candidate for such a system. The idea has been discussed in a press release by the University of Bern. In our Solar System, Jupiter’s moon Io has continuous volcanic activity because of tidal stresses owing to the moon being close to Jupiter’s strong gravity. The authors produce an artist’s impression of how a volcanic exomoon might look:

All this is, of course, currently speculative, but the press release has led to widespread coverage of the idea, including by the International Business Times, Fox News, ZME Science, Sputnik News and other media outlets.

Metals streaming from the atmosphere of WASP-121b

The Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute have put out a press release about Hubble observations of WASP-121b, as reported in a new paper led by David Sing of Johns Hopkins University.

WASP-121b is one of the hottest WASP planets, since it is fiercely irradiated by being in a very tight orbit of only 1.27 days around a hot F star. The Hubble spectra show clear absorption features caused by metals including Magnesium and Iron:

“Heavy metals have been seen in other hot Jupiters before, but only in the lower atmosphere,” explains David Sing, “So you don’t know if they are escaping or not. With WASP-121b, we see magnesium and iron gas so far away from the planet that they’re not gravitationally bound.”

“The heavy metals are escaping partly because the planet is so big and puffy that its gravity is relatively weak. This is a planet being actively stripped of its atmosphere.”

The Hubble press release continues: “This exoplanet is also a perfect target for NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to search in infrared light for water and carbon dioxide, which can be detected at longer, redder wavelengths. The combination of Hubble and Webb observations would give astronomers a more complete inventory of the chemical elements that make up the planet’s atmosphere.”

STSci have produced an artist’s impression of WASP-121b, showing how the planet’s shape is tidally distorted by the gravity of the star that it orbits:

Artwork: NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI)

The press release has led to coverage on over 50 news and science websites, including Newsweek, CNN, Fox News, Metro, The Daily Mail, The Express, and countries including Switzerland, Germany, India, and Malaysia.

Spectral contamination from starspots on WASP-4

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”.