Category Archives: Hot Jupiters

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.

TESS phase curve of WASP-19b

The space-based photometry from the TESS satellite is producing high-quality light curves of many of the WASP exoplanets. Here is the lightcurve of WASP-19b, from a new paper by Ian Wong et al:

In addition to the transit (phase zero), the lightcurve shows a shallower eclipse of the planet (phase 0.5) and a broad variation caused by the changing aspect of the heated face of the planet. Unlike in some planets, the hottest part of the planet directly faces the star, so there is no offset in the phase of the broad modulation.

Wong et al deduce that the dayside face of the planet is heated to 2240 ± 40 K, that there is no flux detected from the colder night side, and that the planet reflects 16 ± 4 percent of the light that falls on it. The last value is relatively high compared to other planets.

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 orbit of WASP-12b is decaying

Here’s the latest update on the changes in the orbital period of WASP-12b, from a new paper by Samuel Yee et al.

The times of transit are getting earlier, which means that the period is decreasing slightly. By also considering the times of occultation (when the planet passes behind the star), and also the radial-velocity measurements of the system, the authors deduce that the changes are not the effect of some other planet, but are a real decay in the orbit of WASP-12b. This is expected to occur as a result of tidal interactions between the planet and its host star.

One notable conclusion is that the rate of period decay in WASP-12b is much faster than that in WASP-19b, which shows no detectable period change yet, despite it being an even shorter-period hot Jupiter, which should increase tidal interactions. Yee et al suggest that the difference could arise if the host star WASP-12 is a sub-giant star, whereas WASP-19 is not.

Update: Following an article on WASP-12b’s orbital decay, supplied by Liz Fuller-Wright of Princeton University, and appearing in and Science Daily, the work has gained media attention from CNN, Science Times, Universe Today, and the UK’s Metro.

Gravity darkening of planet-host MASCARA-4

MASCARA is one of WASP’s competitor transit-search projects, so let’s celebrate a neat result from TESS data of transits of MASCARA-4b. The host star, MASCARA-4, is a hot, fast-rotating A-type star. As a result of its fast rotation, the equatorial regions are being flung outwards by centrifugal forces, such that the star has a flattened, oblate shape. As a result, the force of gravity will be less at the equator than at the poles of the star, and that means that the equatorial regions will be slightly cooler and so a bit dimmer (in outline, that’s because gravity inward pull is balanced by gas pressure, and so lower gravity means lower pressure, and the temperature of a gas is related to its temperature through the perfect gas law). This effect is called “gravity darkening”.

The star spins around its axis (thick line) while the planet orbits at an oblique angle.

In a new paper, John Ahlers et al have detected the effect of gravity darkening on a transit lightcurve of the hot Jupiter MASCARA-4b. The planet has a misaligned orbit, first coming onto the stellar face near the equator, and then moving towards a pole. That means it moves from slightly cooler regions to slightly hotter regions, and that changes the amount of light occulted by the planet.

If gravity darkening is not taken into account then the model fit is a bit too deep at the start and a bit too shallow at the end of the transit. One of the benefits of detecting this effect of gravity darkening is that it then tells us the true angle between the star’s spin axis and the planet’s orbit (whereas other methods, such as Doppler tomography, only tell us the projection of that angle onto the sky).

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.

No period change for WASP-19b

Since close-orbiting hot Jupiters are expected to be gradually spiralling inwards, under the influence of tidal interactions with their stars, and since, in addition, the influence of extra, unseen planets in the system could cause changes in transit times, many groups worldwide are monitoring timings of transits of WASP planets.

The latest report on timings of WASP-19b has just been announced by Petrucci et al. The result is the following diagram, showing deviations of timings from a constant ephemeris, plotted against cycle number.

The upshot is that there is no indication of any period change, which then puts limits on how efficient the tidal bulges, caused by the gravitational interaction of the planet with the star, are at dissipating energy.

It is notable, however, that there is clear scatter about the constant-period line, beyond that expected from the error bars on the timings. This means either that the error bars are under-estimating the uncertainties (as would occur if “red noise” in the lightcurves is unaccounted for), or that there is astrophysically real scatter in the timings, perhaps caused by magnetic activity (star spots) on the surface of the star being transited. We need to better understand such timing scatter if we are to be able to judge whether claims of period changes are actually real.

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.