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.
WASP-33 is a hard system to analyse since the host star is a delta-Scuti star, which means that it pulsates. That produces transit lightcurves like these, where the usual transit profile has pulsations superimposed on it. The figure shows the transit in different wavebands across the optical, from blue to red, as obtained with the OSIRIS spectrograph. That meant that the authors first had to model and subtract the effect of the pulsations.
After doing that they analysed how the transit depth depended on wavelength, which reveals how the planet’s atmosphere absorbs light. “We find that the feature observed between 450 and 550 nm can best be explained by aluminium oxide in its atmosphere” says lead author, Carolina von Essen.
“The current models of exoplanetary atmospheres predict that the Ultra Hot Jupiters should be free of clouds, and present a range of oxides in the visible spectrum, such as vanadium oxide, titanium oxide, and aluminium oxide”. This work on WASP-33b is the first observational indication of the presence of aluminium oxide.