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.
NASA have put out a press release regarding the largest-ever study of hot-Jupiter atmospheres by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Of the ten planets studied, six are WASP discoveries.
The results, published in Nature, report that hot Jupiters are a diverse group that have atmospheres ranging from clear to cloudy. Strong water absorption lines are seen when the planets have a clear atmosphere, but less so when the atmospheres are dominated by clouds and hazes.
Planets such as WASP-17b and WASP-19b have clear atmospheres and show the strongest water features, whereas planets such as WASP-12b and WASP-31b are more cloudy.
The NASA press release has so far resulted in articles on over 110 news websites worldwide. The paper was lead-authored by David Sing of the University of Exeter.
Characterising the atmospheres of exoplanets is a rapidly growing field that is set to increase in importance even more with the forthcoming launch of JWST. WASP planets are prime targets for such work since they transit relatively bright stars. Comparing spectra in and out of transit then gives a transmission spectrum of the planet’s atmosphere.
A new study by David Sing et al presents a state-of-the-art analysis of WASP-31b’s atmosphere using the STIS instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Notable features include the presence of potassium absorption (the peak labelled K) and the fact that this is stronger than sodium (Na) absorption. The absence of many of the broad features in the plotted models implies a “cloud deck” that results in few spectral features. Also seen is a “Rayleigh scattering” slope implying small atmospheric particles floating above the cloud layer.
WASP-31b is a planet of 0.5 Jupiter masses that is bloated up to 1.5 Jupiter radii. This gives it a large atmospheric scale height that makes it a good target for transmission spectroscopy, since the fluffier atmosphere covers a larger fraction of the star during transit.