Category Archives: Hubble Space Telescope

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.

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 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.

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”.

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”.

Sulfanyl in the atmosphere of WASP-121b?

The latest Hubble Space Telescope spectrum of a WASP exoplanet has just been published by Thomas Evans et al. The spectrum of WASP-121b extends from near-UV wavelengths through the optical to the infra-red, combining data from three different gratings (shown in different colours in the figure):

Of particular interest is the rapid rise in the data in the near-UV (the extreme left of the plot), which is clearly out of line with the fitted model (purple lines). The rise is too rapid to be attributed to Rayleigh scattering in a clear atmosphere.

Instead, the authors suggest that it is due to sulfanyl, a molecule consisting of one sulfur and one hydrogen. Evans et al conclude that the near-UV absorber “likely captures a significant amount of incident stellar radiation at low pressures, thus playing a significant role in the overall energy budget, thermal structure, and circulation of the atmosphere”.

The work points to the ongoing importance of the Hubble Space Telescope, even after the James Webb Space Telescope is launched, since the JWST is designed for infrared astronomy, and can’t see the near-UV wavelengths that can be observed with Hubble.

Update: One of the authors, Jo Barstow, has tweeted the following thread on the @astrotweeps account: