Characterising the atmospheres of extrasolar planets is a booming activity, both from ground-based observatories and using the Hubble Space Telescope. The latest study is of the highly-irradiated and hot planet WASP-103b, which was found by WASP-South transiting a star with an ultra-short orbit of only 0.93 days (Michaël Gillon et al 2014).
Monika Lendl et al have now used the Gemini/GMOS instrument to probe its atmosphere. The main finding is prominent features caused by absorption of light by sodium (Na) and potassium (K) ions:
Such features imply that WASP-103b has relatively clear skies, since cloudy or hazy atmospheres tend to produce flat, featureless spectra. The authors explain that: “This finding is in line with previous studies on cloud occurrence on exoplanets which find that clouds dominate the transmission spectra of cool, low surface gravity planets while hot, high surface gravity planets are either cloud-free, or possess clouds located below the altitudes probed by transmission spectra”.
A team led by Brett Addison has been pointing the Anglo-Australian Telescope at WASP planets, trying to discern whether the planet’s orbit is aligned with the star’s spin axis.
The rotation of the star means that one limb is approaching us, and so is blue-shifted, while the other limb is receding, and so is red-shifted. The planet can occult blue-shifted light (making a spectral line redder) and then red-shifted light. This is called the Rossiter–McLaughlin (or R–M) effect, and allows us to deduce the path of a transiting planet across the face of its star.
Brett Addison and colleagues report the R–M effect for three more WASP planets, WASP-66b, WASP-87b and WASP-103b. Here are their data for WASP-87b:
All three planets appear to have orbital axes aligned with the star’s spin axis. The authors discuss the mechanisms and timescales by which orbits get “damped” by tidal effects and so become aligned with their star.