Category Archives: exoplanets

Tidal inflation explains bloated exoplanet envelopes

A new paper by Sarah Millholland et al reconsiders highly bloated, low-mass planets such as WASP-166b. One explanation for the low mass of such planets is that they have small cores and are mostly gaseous envelope. However, having a relatively small core is at odds with core-accretion theory for the formation of such planets, which says that they can only gravitationally attract and then accrete large envelopes if the core is sufficiently massive.

Instead, Millholland et al suggest that the envelope is a smaller fraction of the planet’s mass than it seems, and that instead it has expanded to its current bloated state by tidal heating. A small eccentricity of the orbit is sufficient to produce tidal dissipation that heats the envelope and thus causes it to expand.

In the figure, the authors plot the fraction of the planet that is envelope, assuming no tidal heating, and also the smaller fraction when accounting for the effects of tidal heating. The reduction makes the proportions compatible with core-accretion theory. Millholland et al suggest that: “many sub-Saturns may be understood as sub-Neptunes that have undergone significant radius inflation, rather than a separate class of objects”.

Dayside spectrum of the ultrahot-Jupiter WASP-121b

Thomas Mikal-Evans et al have released a new paper analysing the heated, dayside face of WASP-121b. Teams studying the atmospheres of exoplanets either look at the transit, when the planet’s atmosphere is projected against the host star, such that molecules produce absorption features in the spectrum, or they study the eclipse, when the heated face of the planet disappear and then reappears. In the latter, atmospheric molecules produce emission features in the spectrum.

Here is the spectrum of the heated face of WASP-121b, based on recording five eclipses using the WFC3 spectrograph on the Hubble Space Telescope. The orange line and yellow banding show the spectrum expected for a pure black body of the same temperature as the planet. The red lines then show model fits, which reveal emission features caused by H ions and water (H2O) molecules.

No Rayleigh scattering gives yellow skies to exoplanet WASP-79b

Here’s a catch-up on a press release recently put out by NASA, Hubble and Johns Hopkins University, who led an analysis of WASP-79b. Lead author of the paper, Kristin Sotzen, combined spectroscopy from the ground-based Magellan II telescope in Chile with data from the HST and Spitzer satellites.

As explained in the press release: “The surprise in recently published results, is that the planet’s sky doesn’t have any evidence for an atmospheric phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering, where certain colors of light are dispersed by very fine dust particles in the upper atmosphere. Rayleigh scattering is what makes Earth’s skies blue by scattering the shorter (bluer) wavelengths of sunlight. Because WASP-79b doesn’t seem to have this phenomenon, the daytime sky would likely be yellowish, researchers say.”

“This is a strong indication of an unknown atmospheric process that we’re just not accounting for in our physical models.” said Sotzen.

WASP-79b also was observed as part of the Hubble Space Telescope’s Panchromatic Comparative Exoplanet Treasury (PanCET) program, and those observations showed that there is water vapor in WASP-79b’s atmosphere. Based on this finding, the giant planet was selected as an Early Release Science target for NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

The press release has led to national media coverage in the US and the UK, including by The Sun and Fox News.

The two planets of WASP-148

Even though WASP has found nearly 200 planets we are still announcing systems that are unlike any previous ones. WASP-148 is an example, as described in the discovery paper by Guillaume Hébrard et al.

WASP first detected transits of the hot Jupiter WASP-148b in an 8.8-day orbit. Spectroscopic observations with OHP/SOPHIE, aimed at measuring the planet’s mass, then found that there was also a second massive planet in a longer, 35-day orbit:

The orbits of both planets are eccentric, likely because they are perturbing each other by their gravitational attraction. Further, the gravitational perturbations mean that the transits of the inner planet vary in time by 15 mins.

We don’t yet know whether the outer planet, WASP-148c, also transits (since its longer period means that there are gaps in WASP’s coverage of its orbit), but this patch of sky is currently being observed by the TESS satellite. The space-based photometry from TESS will be good enough to detect any transits of WASP-148c, to map out transit-timing variations, and to look for additional planets in the system that are too low mass to have been detected in the radial-velocity data. WASP-148 is thus an important system for studying an unusual planetary-system architecture, with two massive planets in relatively close orbits in resonance with each other.

Detecting helium envelopes around WASP planets

A new paper by Shreyas Vissapragada and colleagues reports a new technique for detecting material boiling off hot-Jupiter exoplanets. The idea is that helium atoms in escaping material should be strong absorbers of light at the wavelength of 1083.3 nm, one of the transitions of neutral helium. Thus, if one records a transit in an ultra-narrow-band filter around that wavelength, the planet should look bigger and so the transit should be deeper.

Vissapragada et al pointed the 200-inch Hale Telescope at a transit of WASP-69b. Here’s the result:

The blue line is the usual transit depth expected in continuum light. The data and fitted red line are the transit observed in the 1083.3-nm helium line. The authors compute that the extra depth of the transit implies that 30 million kilos of material is evaporating off the planet each second, as a result of stellar irradiation. This sounds a lot, but adds up to only a few percent of the planet’s mass over the host star’s lifetime.

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”.

More TESS phase curves of WASP exoplanets

Ian Wong et al have produced a new analysis of the TESS data on previously known WASP exoplanets. Their main interest is the “phase curve”, the variation of the light around the planet’s orbit.

Two examples are the systems WASP-72 and WASP-100:

In addition to the main transit (planet passing in front of the star) the phase curves show secondary eclipses (planet passing behind the star, at phase 0.5) and a sinusoidal variation due to the heated face of the planet. By modelling the phase-curves of these and other similar planets, Wong et al make the tentative suggestion that the hotter the planet (which can be measured from the depth of the secondary eclipse) the more reflective the atmosphere of the planet is.

Here’s a similar plot for WASP-30. Note, though, that the phase-curve variation peaks at phases 0.25 and 0.75, unlike those for WASP-72 and WASP-100. That’s because WASP-30b is not a planet but a brown dwarf, with a mass of 63 Jupiters. That is massive enough for its gravity to distort the host star into an ellipsoidal shape, and so in this system the variation of the light is caused by the varying projection of the distorted star around the orbit.

Amaury Triaud wins the RAS Fowler Award

Congratulations to Dr Amaury Triaud, now at the University of Birmingham, recipient of the 2020 Fowler Award from the Royal Astronomical Society. The Fowler Award is for scientists making a “particularly noteworthy contribution to Astronomy & Geophysics at an early stage of their research career”.

Amaury Triaud

The citation reads: “Between 2007 and 2017, Dr Triaud led the radial-velocity follow-up of planet candidates south of declination −10 degrees from the Wide-Angle Search for Planets (WASP). His programme led to the discovery of over 130 planets from some 1000 candidates, making WASP the most successful of all ground-based transit searches.”

Amaury started looking for WASP exoplanets as a graduate student at the Geneva Observatory, under the direction of Didier Queloz (himself recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physics for his discoveries of exoplanets). Didier’s group at Geneva operated the CORALIE spectrograph on the 1.2-m Euler telescope at La Silla in Chile. Euler/CORALIE was the ideal follow-up instrument to vet the transiting exoplanet candidates coming from WASP-South, able to show which ones were genuinely the transits of planetary-mass bodies (only 1-in-10 of all candidates), and which were merely transit mimics. Amaury organised and ran the campaign, observing of order 1500 candidates and leading to the discovery of around 150 planets.

Euler telescope

The Euler 1.2-m telescope

While the citation mentions the campaign for Southern candidates south of declination −10 degrees, the Geneva group were also responsible for much of the follow-up in the equatorial strip from −10 to +10 degrees, where the candidates came jointly from data from WASP-South and from SuperWASP-North on La Palma.

Amaury’s work extended into studying the orbits of the WASP exoplanets, showing that many of the orbits were misaligned. He also developed programs identifying and studying the low-mass binary stars that also came from the WASP survey, and is now looking for circumbinary planets orbiting these low-mass binaries.

The IAU announces names for WASP exoplanets

The IAU have recently announced the outcome of their campaign allowing the people of the world to name recently discovered exoplanets and their host stars. The names chosen for WASP exoplanet systems are:

WASP-6 and WASP-6b: Márohu and Boinayel (Márohu and Boinayel are the god of drought and the god of rain, respectively, from the mythology of the Taino people of the Dominican Republic).

WASP-13 and WASP-13b: Gloas and Cruinlagh (in Manx Gaelic, Gloas means to shine, like a star, while Cruinlagh means to orbit).

WASP-15 and WASP-15b: Nyamien and Asye (Nyamien is the supreme creator deity in the Akan mythology of the Ivory Coast, while Asye is the Earth goddess).

WASP-17 and WASP-17b: Dìwö and Ditsö̀ (from the Bribri language of Costa Rica, Dìwö means the Sun, while Ditsö̀ is the name the god Sibö̀ gave to the Bribri people).

WASP-21 and WASP-21b: Tangra and Bendida (Tangra is the supreme creator god in early Bulgarian mythology, while Bendida is the Great Mother goddess of the Thracians).

WASP-22 and WASP-22b: Tojil and Koyopa’ (Tojil is a Mayan deity related to rain, storms and fire, while Koyopa’ means lightning in the K’iche’ Mayan language).

WASP-34 and WASP-34b: Amansinaya and Haik (Aman Sinaya is the primordial deity of the ocean in the Philippine’s Tagalog mythology while Haik succeeded Aman Sinaya as God of the Sea).

WASP-38 and WASP-38b: Irena and Iztok (Iztok and Irena are characters from a traditional story from Slovenia).

WASP-39 and WASP-39b: Malmok and Bocaprins (Malmok and Boca Prins are scenic, sandy beaches in Aruba).

WASP-50 and WASP-50b: Chaophraya and Maeping (Chao Phraya is the great river of Thailand, while Mae Ping is a tributary).

WASP-52 and WASP-52b: Anadolu and Göktürk (Anadolu is the motherland of the Turkish people while Göktürk was the first Turkish state, established in the 5th century).

WASP-60 and WASP-60b: Morava and Vlasina (Morava is the longest river in Serbia, while Vlasina is a tributary).

WASP-62 and WASP-62b: Naledi and Krotoa (Naledi means “star” in the Sesotho, SeTswana and SePedi languages of South Africa, while Krotoa is considered the Mother of Africa and member of the Khoi people).

WASP-64 and WASP-64b: Atakoraka and Agouto (Atakoraka is a mountain range in Togo, while Agouto is the highest peak).

WASP-71 and WASP-71b: Mpingo and Tanzanite (Mpingo is a tree that grows in southern Tanzania producing ebony wood for musical instruments, while Tanzanite is a precious stone).

WASP-72 and WASP-72b: Diya and Cuptor (Diya is an oil lamp used in the festival of Diwali in Mauritius, while Cuptor is a traditional clay oven).

WASP-79 and WASP-79b: Montuno and Pollera (the names are the traditional costumes worn by the man and the woman, respectively, in the El Punto folk dance of Panama).

WASP-80 and WASP-80b: Petra and Wadirum (Wadi Rum is a valley in southern Jordan while Petra is an ancient city).

WASP-161 and WASP-161b: Tislit and Isli (both are lakes in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, and also mean “bride” and “groom” in the Amazigh language).

The tidal shape of the exoplanet WASP-121b

The moon’s gravity causes a tidal bulge in Earth’s oceans, so that the water facing the moon is raised several metres. Similarly, close-orbiting exoplanets will have a tidally distorted shape, with a tidal bulge facing the host star. The amount of distortion can be quantified by the “Love number” h (named after the mathematician Augustus Love)

Specifically, h2 tells us the relative height of the tidal bulge, and would be zero for a perfectly rigid body that did not distort at all, and would be 2.5 for a perfectly fluid body that adapted fully to the tidal potential. Gas-giant planets have large envelopes of gaseous fluid, so would be expected to have fairly high values of h2. However, they also might have rocky or metallic cores, and so would have values less than 2.5. For example Jupiter has h2 = 1.6 while Saturn has h2 = 1.4.

Transit of WASP-121b observed by HST with a model fit by Hellard et al.

A new paper by Hugo Hellard et al discusses whether h2 for a hot-Jupiter exoplanet can be measured from the shape of the transit lightcurve, given good-enough photometry such as that from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The main problem is that the transit profile is heavily affected by variations in the brightness of the stellar disc, in particular the limb darkening (a star’s limbs appear a bit dimmer, because a tangential line-of-sight into a gas cloud skims only the cooler, upper layers). Thus the Hellard et al paper discusses at length different ways to model the limb darkening.

A star’s disk is dimmer at the edges, so a transiting exoplanet removes less light (here Venus, top right, is transiting the Sun).

The end-result, however, is a claim to have measured h2 for WASP-121b, with a value of h2 = 1.4 ± 0.8. This is not (yet) a strong constraint, but points to the potential in the future, and also flags up the need to understand and properly parametrise limb darkening.