The European Southern Observatory have put out press release about observations of WASP-19b with the Very Large Telescope. A team led by ESO Fellow Elyar Sedaghati have found titanium oxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet for the first time.
ESO’s graphic (credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser) illustrates how observations during transit allow us to analyse an exoplanet’s atmosphere. The star light shines through the atmosphere, where light at particular wavelengths is absorbed by molecules, causing the light that we see to carry a distinctive signature of the atmosphere’s composition.
The team observed three different transits of WASP-19b, each in a different colour, to produce one of the best transmission spectra of an exoplanet so far. The titanium oxide (TiO) features are marked, along with those from water (H2O), sodium (Na) and scattering due to haze.
ESO’s press release has led to coverage on several dozen news- and science-related websites. ESO have also produced an artist’s impression of WASP-19b:
Many forefront facilities such as the Hubble Space Telescope and ESO’s Very Large Telescope are being pointed at exoplanets to try to find out what their atmospheres are made of. Yet such work is right at the limit of what can currently be done (though we hope that the James Webb Space Telescope will soon change that). So to what extent can we trust the results?
Here is an interesting puzzle. A new paper by Neale Gibson et al reports a spectrum of the atmosphere of WASP-31b, obtained with the FORS2 instrument on the VLT.
The spectrum is mostly flat, implying that the planet has a fairly cloudy atmosphere, but towards the right-hand side the orange line (a computed model) shows a strong emission line owing to potassium. The problem is that while one data point from previous HST data (small grey circle) indicates the presence of a strong potassium line, the new data from the VLT (the green-square data point) is incompatible with the HST data and would mean that there is no strong potassium line.
Gibson and co-authors put a lot of effort into trying to resolve the discrepancy, and consider whether Earth’s atmosphere might be contaminating the ground-based data, or whether unknown systematic uncertainties might be affecting the Hubble data. Overall they can only “highlight the need for caution” in interpreting such features. This illustrates that science at the cutting edge is never easy, and that much of an astronomer’s time is spent investigating whether one can trust the data one is working with.
Most of the best detections of features in the atmospheres of transiting exoplanets have come from the Hubble Space Telescope, but time on hugely expensive satellites is in high demand and limited. Thus a recent paper led by Nikolay Nikolov from Exeter University is a welcome development. Nikolov and his team observed WASP-39b and detected a strong Sodium line from the planet, which indicates a clear atmosphere. The result came from the newly upgraded FORS2 spectrograph on ESO’s Very Large Telescope.
The important feature of the plot is that the VLT data (black) are every bit as good as those from a previous detection of the same line using the Hubble. While Hubble has the advantage of being in space, the VLT has a much larger mirror and can observe whole transits without the gaps seen in Hubble data owing to its low-Earth orbit.
The similar result from a very different facility also gives confidence in the correctness of such detections of features in exoplanet atmospheres, which are, after all, pushing current technology to its limits.