Category Archives: Hot Jupiters

WASP-96b: an exoplanet free of clouds

Press Release: Scientists have detected an exoplanet atmosphere that is free of clouds, marking a pivotal breakthrough in the quest for greater understanding of the planets beyond our solar system. (Link to Nature paper)

Figure 1 | Exoplanets in orbits close to the line of sight for us on Earth periodically pass in front (transit) and behind (secondary eclipse) of their host stars. Transits and eclipses are a powerful indirect way to study the composition of exoplanet atmospheres. Image credit: N. Nikolov

An international team of astronomers, led by Dr Nikolay Nikolov from the University of Exeter, have found that the atmosphere of the ‘hot Saturn’ WASP-96b is cloud-free. Using Europe’s 8.2m Very Large Telescope in Chile, the team studied the atmosphere of WASP-96b when the planet passed in front of (“transited”) its host-star (Figure 1). This enabled the team to see the starlight shining through the planet’s atmosphere, and so determine its composition.

Just as an individual’s fingerprints are unique, atoms and molecules have a unique spectral characteristic that can be used to detect their presence in celestial objects. The spectrum of WASP-96b shows the complete fingerprint of sodium, which can only be observed for an atmosphere free of clouds (Figure 2). The result appears today in the prestigious research journal Nature.

Figure 2 | Sodium fingerprint in an exoplanet spectrum. Shown is the absorption due to sodium at each wavelength. More absorption means that we are looking higher up in the atmosphere, and the vertical axis therefore a measure of altitude in the atmosphere of the planet. An atmosphere free of clouds produces an intact sodium fingerprint (left panel). A cloud deck blocks part of the sodium in the atmosphere, partially removing its spectral signature (right panel). Image credit: N. Nikolov/E. de Mooij

“We’ve been looking at over twenty exoplanet transit spectra. WASP-96b is the only exoplanet that appears to be entirely cloud-free and shows such a clear sodium signature, making the planet a benchmark for characterization”, explains lead investigator Nikolay Nikolov from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

WASP-96b was discovered recently by a Keele University team led by Professor Coel Hellier. It is the 96th planet announced by the Wide Angle Search for Planets. WASP-96b is a gas giant similar to Saturn in mass and exceeding the size of Jupiter by 20%. The planet periodically transits a sun-like star 980 light years away in the southern constellation Phoenix.

It has long been predicted that sodium exists in the atmospheres of hot gas-giant exoplanets, and in a cloud-free atmosphere it would produce spectra that are similar in shape to the profile of a camping tent.

“Until now, sodium was revealed either as a very narrow peak or found to be completely missing”, continues Nikolay Nikolov. “This is because the characteristic ‘tent-shaped’ profile can only be produced deep in the atmosphere of the planet and for most planets clouds appear to get in the way”.

“It is difficult to predict which of these hot atmospheres will have thick clouds. By seeing the full range of possible atmospheres, from very cloudy to nearly cloud-free like WASP-96b, we’ll gain a better understanding of what these clouds are made of”, explains Prof. Jonathan J. Fortney, study co-author, based at the Other Worlds Laboratory (OWL) at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).

The sodium signature seen in WASP-96b suggests an atmosphere free of clouds (Figure 3). The observation allowed the team to measure how abundant sodium is in the atmosphere of the planet, finding levels similar to those found in our own Solar System.

Figure 3 | An artist rendition of ‘hot Saturn’ WASP-96b. A distant observer would see WASP-96b blueish in colour, because sodium would absorb the yellow-orange light from the planet’s full spectrum. Image credit: Engine House

“WASP-96b will also provide us with a unique opportunity to determine the abundances of other molecules, such as water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide with future observations “, adds co-author Ernst de Mooij from Dublin City University.

Sodium is the seventh most common element in the Universe. On Earth, sodium compounds such as salt give sea water its salty taste and give the white colour of salt pans in deserts. In animal life, sodium is known to regulate heart activity and metabolism. Sodium is also used in technology, e.g. in the sodium-vapour street lights, where it produces yellow-orange light.

The team aims to look at the signature of other atmospheric species, such as water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide with the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes as well as telescopes on the ground.

Update: The story has been covered on over 50 websites, including Newsweek, Astronomy Magazine, the International Business Times, the Irish Times and others.

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The thermal phase curve of WASP-103b

I was wondering about writing a post on Laura Kreidberg’s new paper on WASP-103b when I noticed that she’d already done it. So let’s just borrow that:

Hubble detects helium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet for the first time

Press Release (in coordination with Nature and Hubble/ESA): Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have detected helium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-107b. This is the first time that this element has been detected in the atmosphere of a planet outside the Solar System. The discovery demonstrates a new method for studying exoplanet atmospheres.

An international team, led by Jessica Spake of the University of Exeter, has discovered helium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-107b. The discovery was made with the Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Helium is the second-most common element in the Universe after hydrogen”, explains Jessica Spake. “It is also one of the main constituents of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in our Solar System. However, until now helium has never been detected in an exoplanet.”

WASP-107b (the 107th exoplanet discovered by the UK-led Wide Angle Search for Planets, “WASP”) was discovered in 2017 by a team led by Professor Coel Hellier of Keele University.

The team found that WASP-107b is a very low-density planet, being so puffed up and bloated that the atmosphere might be boiling off the planet under the irradiation of its host star.

“As soon as we found WASP-107b we realised it was ideal for studying the atmosphere of an exoplanet” remarks Keele astronomer David Anderson, who wrote the paper announcing WASP-107b.

Artist’s impression of the exoplanet WASP-107b showing the atmosphere boiling off under the fierce irradiation of its star. Image credit: EngineHouseVFX

Jessica Spake decided to point Hubble at WASP-107b, and, by detecting the spectral signature of irradiated helium atoms, proved that the atmosphere is indeed boiling off into space. While it had long been thought that helium would be abundant in exoplanet atmospheres, searches for it had previously been unsuccessful.

David Sing, who leads the Exeter team, says that: “Our new method, along with future telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, will allow us to analyse atmospheres of exoplanets in far greater detail than ever before.”

Jessica Spake continues. “We know that there is helium in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and this new technique may help us to detect atmospheres around Earth-sized exoplanets.”

The study was published in the paper “Helium in the eroding atmosphere of an exoplanet”, published in Nature.

Note: Dozens of websites have covered the story, including Newsweek, The Independent, the International Business Times, and others.

WASP-104b is Darker than Charcoal

Hot Jupiter WASP-104b was observed in Campaign 14 of the Kepler K2 mission, leading to superb-quality photometry covering 45 orbital cycles of the planet.

Keele graduate student Teo Močnik has analysed the data and concluded that WASP-104b is one of the darkest exoplanets known, reflecting less than 3% of the light from its star.

The conclusion comes from interpreting the “phase curve” produced when the photometry is folded on the planet’s orbital period. Variations in the light are expected to come from the transit and occultation (when the planet passes in front of and behind the star, respectively), from the gravitational distortion of the host star caused by the close-in planet, and from the reflection of starlight.

The phase curve of WASP-104b, as observed by K2, fitted with a red-line model.

The low albedo of the planet is a surprise, but might indicate the absence of clouds (which can be highly reflective) or the presence of ions such as sodium and potassium that absorb light.

The story of WASP-104b was reported by New Scientist, and that then led to articles in Science Alert, Metro, the Daily Mail, Newsweek, the International Business Times, Tech Times and other locations.

Comparing WASP-173 to KELT-22

WASP-173 and KELT-22 are the same object. The WASP and KELT teams are both trying to find transiting exoplanets around relatively bright stars, and this means that sometimes our discoveries overlap. We announced that WASP-173 hosts a hot Jupiter in a paper on arXiv on the 7th March, and then on the 21st March KELT reported an entirely independent discovery of the same planet.

Since the two teams use different facilities, techniques and software, comparing the two sets of system parameters provides an interesting check on the methods. So let’s see how similar the reports are.

WASP-173Ab discovery photometry

The biggest difference is a somewhat different transit depth. We (WASP) report a depth of 0.0123 ± 0.0002 whereas KELT report 0.0145 ± 0.0008, where the difference is greater than the error bars quoted. Now this system is a double star, with a companion star 6 arcsecs away and 0.8 magnitudes fainter. That makes it hard to measure the depth. One either uses a much smaller photometric aperture than normal, excluding the nearby star, or one uses a much wider aperture, containing both stars, and makes a correction for the dilution of the companion. Either approach could introduce systematic errors more than normal. Then, of course, there could be red noise in the light-curves owing to observing conditions or stellar activity.

KELT-22Ab transit photometry

The greater depth in the KELT paper means they arrive at a slightly larger planet radius (1.29 ± 0.10 Jupiter radii) than we do (1.20 ± 0.06) but here the error ranges overlap. The planet mass (derived mostly from the radial velocity data) is comparable, 3.47 ± 0.15 Jupiter masses in the KELT paper, and 3.69 ± 0.18 in ours.

WASP-173Ab radial velocities (from CORALIE)

The differences in the parameters of the host star are all within the error ranges. KELT report a G2 star with an effective temperature of 5770 ± 50 K, a surface gravity (log g) of 4.39 ± 0.05, and a mass and radius of 1.09 ± 0.05 and 1.10 ± 0.08 in solar units, whereas WASP report a G3 star with effective temperature of 5700 ± 150 K, a surface gravity of 4.5 ± 0.2, and a mass and radius of 1.05 ± 0.08 and 1.11 ± 0.05.

KELT-22Ab radial velocities (from TrES)

Another comparison is the “impact factor” (how near the center-line the transit chord is), which we have as 0.40 ± 0.08 while KELT report 0.31 ± 0.18. Our higher value results from our having a higher transit width, 0.0957 ± 0.0007 days, compared to KELT’s 0.0981 ± 0.0025. Again, the differences point to red noise in the transit lightcurves, which is likely to produce uncertainties greater than the formal error bars.

Overall, the values are sufficiently similar that we can have broad confidence in the values, but the presence of systematic noise does need to be borne in mind.

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.

How fast do the orbits of hot Jupiters decay?

Tidal interactions between close-in, gas-giant exoplanets and their host star should cause the orbits of the planets to decay. The crucial number in determining how fast that happens is the “quality factor”, Q, which tells us the fraction of the tidal energy that is dissipated in each cycle. A high value of Q, say 107, means that only 1 part in 107 of the energy is dissipated, giving a low rate of orbital decay. A smaller value gives a faster decay.

A new study by Kaloyan Penev et al suggests that Q varies a lot depending on the tidal “forcing period” (that is, the period at which a planet would appear to orbit, if viewed when rotating with the spinning star, with an extra factor of a half since there are two tides per orbital cycle).

Penev estimate the value of Q by comparing the observed spin period of the host star to the most likely spin period expected for that sort of star, if it had no planet, and so modelling how much the star has been spun up by the tidal interaction with the planet.

They find that the Q of the star is high, about 107, when the tidal forcing period is low (< 1 d) but much smaller, about 105.5, when the forcing period is longer.

This work might resolve several puzzles. The Q value expected from studying binary stars is near 105.5, but if that were true for all hot Jupiters then they’d be destroyed too readily, and the current observed population could not be explained. This puzzle is resolved if their orbits decay much more slowly when the forcing period is short.

The different Q values also allow the planets to re-align their orbits with the spin of the star (so that the orbital plane is perpendicular to the star’s spin axis) on a timescale shorter than the orbital period decay, thus explaining why there are many “aligned” hot Jupiters.