Tag Archives: WASP-107b

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.

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First results on the atmosphere of WASP-107b

Being a Neptune-mass planet (0.12 MJ) bloated to a near-Jupiter radius (0.94 RJ) makes WASP-107b’s atmosphere very fluffy, and that, coupled with it transiting a moderately bright K star (V = 11.6) makes it a superb target for atmospheric characterisation.

Laura Kreidberg et al have pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at WASP-107b to make the first atmospheric study. Here’s the WFC3 spectrum:

Hubble Space Telescope spectrum of WASP-107b

The broad features at 1.15 and 1.4 microns are due to water absorption in WASP-107b’s atmosphere. Kreidberg et al model the features, finding that they are compatible with expectations given solar abundances. They are not deep enough, though, to be produced by fully clear skies, and a layer of high-altitude cloud is also required.

WASP-107b is one of the prime exoplanets already chosen for early observations with the imminent James Webb Space Telescope, so it is exciting to know that its atmosphere does show prominent molecular features.

Super-Neptune WASP-107b has an oblique orbit

WASP-107b is only twice the mass of Neptune but nearly the radius of Jupiter. It is thus a hugely bloated and fluffy exoplanet and one of the more important of the recent WASP discoveries, being a prime target for atmospheric characterisation (see the discovery paper by Anderson et al 2017).

WASP-107b was also in the Campaign-10 field of the K2 mission, leading to a Kepler-quality photometric lightcurve. Recent papers by two teams, led by Teo Močnik and Fei Dai, have arrived at a similar conclusion: WASP-107b seems to be in an oblique orbit, rather than in an orbit aligned with the rotation axis of the host star.

spot_tran

The conclusion comes from star spots. If the orbit is aligned, consecutive transits will repeatedly cross the same star spot, producing a “bump” in the lightcurve each time, whereas if the orbit is oblique this will not happen.

Thus one can play the game of looking for transit bumps and seeing if they repeat. But spots can change, by growing or shrinking, so is a smaller bump in the next transit the same spot, or a different one? Also, if there is some uncertainty in the rotational period of the star, then we’re not fully sure exactly where in the next transit the spot will recur.

Star spots in transits of exoplanet WASP-107b

In the figure at left (in which the transit itself, between the dashed lines, has been removed, leaving only the starspot bumps), obvious spots are circled in red, while possible spots are marked with a lighter red. The rotational period of the star is nearly three times the orbital period of the planet, and so, if the spots recurred, they would be seen every three transits. (The gap, and thus the missing of transits 3, 4 and 5, arose from a spacecraft malfunction.)

The conclusion is that the star spots do not seem to recur and thus that WASP-107b is in an oblique orbit.