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.
Thomas Beatty et al have an interesting new paper on arXiv today, primarily about the transiting brown dwarf KELT-1b. They’ve used the Spitzer Space Telescope to record the infra-red light as it varies around the 1.3-day orbit.
They end up with the following plots (KELT-1b is on the right, with the plot for the planet WASP-43b on the left):
The x-axis is “colour”, the difference in flux between two infra-red passbands at 3.6 and 4.5 microns. The y-axis is brightness (in the 3.6 micron band). The underlying orange and red squares show where typical M-dwarf stars and L and T brown dwarfs fall on the plot.
The solid-line “loops” are then the change in position of the atmospheres of KELT-1b and WASP-43b around their orbits. At some phases we see their “day” side, heated by the flux of their star, and at others we see their cooler “night” side.
The blue line is the track where something would lie if there were no clouds in its atmosphere. The fact that KELT-1b’s loop doesn’t follow the blue track, but moves significantly right (to cooler colours) implies that the night side of the brown dwarf must be cloudy. The night side of WASP-43b, however, appears to be less cloudy, according to its track.
Here are the same plots for two more planets:
The plot for WASP-19b shows a loop with a marked excursion to the right, suggesting a cloudy night side to the planet. For WASP-18b, however, the loop follows a trajectory nearer the blue “no cloud” track, suggesting a clearer atmosphere.
NASA have written a publicity page on JWST’s plans to study the atmospheres of gas-giant exoplanets, including an animation on how this is done. Since the prime targets for the “Early Release Science” program are three WASP-discovered planets, WASP-18b, WASP-43b and WASP-79b, we “re-blog” the piece here:
“In April 2018, NASA launched the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Its main goal is to locate Earth-sized planets and larger “super-Earths” orbiting nearby stars for further study. One of the most powerful tools that will examine the atmospheres of some planets that TESS discovers will be NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Since observing small exoplanets with thin atmospheres like Earth will be challenging for Webb, astronomers will target easier, gas giant exoplanets first.”
WASP-43b is the hot Jupiter that is closest to its parent star, around which it orbits in only 19 hours. At such a close location, tidal interactions between the planet and the star will be intense. That means that we expect the planet to be phase locked (with its rotation period equalling the orbital period, so that the same side always faces the star), and we expect the orbit to be circular (any eccentricity having been damped by tides), and we expect the orbit to be aligned with the rotation axis of the star.
Tidal damping of the alignment of the orbit is the subject of much investigation. It seems to be most efficient if the planet orbits cooler stars, and much less efficient if the planet orbits a hotter star. This might be because cooler stars have large “convective zones” in their outer layers, which can efficiently dissipate tidal energy, whereas hotter stars have only very shallow convective zones with little mass in them.
Since WASP-43b orbits a cool star, a K7 star with a surface temperature of only 4400 Kelvin, that’s another reason for expecting its orbit to be aligned. This has now been confirmed by observations with the Italian Telescopio Nazionale Galileo. The way to measure the orbital alignment of a transiting exoplanet is by the Rossiter–McLaughlin effect. As the planet transits a rotating star, it first obscures one limb and then the other, and since the different limbs will be either blue-shifted or red-shifted, according to how the star is spinning, the effect on the overall light of star will reveal the path of the orbit.
A new paper by Esposito et al reports R–M measurements for three planets including WASP-43b. The data show the classic R–M signature of an aligned planet.
The upper panel shows the change in stellar radial-velocity around the planet’s orbit, caused by the gravitational tug of the planet. The lowest panel highlights the data through transit, showing the expected excursion first to a redder light (when blue-shifted light on the approaching limb is occulted) and then to blue light (when the red-shifted receding limb is occulted).
WASP-43b is the “hot Jupiter” exoplanet with the orbit closest-in to its star, producing an ultra-short orbital period of only 20 hours. The dayside face is thus strongly heated, making it a prime system for studying exoplanet atmospheres.
Kevin Stevenson et al have pointed NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope at WASP-43, covering the full orbit of the planet on three different occasions. Spitzer observed the infrared light from the heated face in two bands around 3.6 microns and 4.5 microns.
The three resulting “phase curves” are shown in the figure:
The 4.5-micron data from one visit are shown in red in the lower panel; the 3.6-micron data from the two other visits are in the upper panel. The transit (when the planet passes in front of the star) is at phase 1.0, and drops below the plotted figure. The planet occultation (when it passes behind the star) is at phase 0.5. The sinusoidal variation results from the heated face of the planet facing towards us (near phase 0.5) or away (near phase 1.0).
Intriguingly, the depth of the variation in the 3.6-micron data is clearly different between the two visits. Why is this? Well, Stevenson et al are not sure. One possibility is that the data are not well calibrated and that the difference results from systematic errors in the observations. After all, such observations are pushing the instruments to their very limits, beyond what they had been designed to do (back when no exoplanets were known and such observations were not conceived of).
More intriguingly, the planet might genuinely have been different on the different occasions. The authors report that, in order to model the spectra of the planet as it appears to be during the “blue” Visit 2 in the figure, the night-time face needs to be predominantly cloudy. But, if the clouds cleared, more heat would be let out and the infrared emission would be stronger. That might explain the higher flux during the “yellow” Visit 1. Here on Earth the sky regularly turns from cloudy to clear; is the same happening on WASP-43b?
Since hot-Jupiter planets have close-in orbits they will raise a tidal bulge on their host star. Since the planet’s orbit is faster than the star’s rotation, that bulge will tend to lag behind the planet. Its gravity will thus pull back the planet slightly, draining angular momentum from the planet’s orbit.
Hot Jupiters, especially the shortest-period ones, are thus expected to be gradually spiralling inwards, and many will eventually spiral into their star. An important issue is how fast this happens. We can obtain theoretical estimates, but it would be good to have a direct measurement of the decay. Thus the transits of the shortest-period hot Jupiters are being monitored to see whether their orbital period is decreasing.
Ing-Guey Jiang et al have just produced a paper based on new transit observations of WASP-43b, an ultra-short-period hot Jupiter which orbits in 0.81 days. They arrive at this plot:
The x-axis is time, in a count of transits, while the y-axis is the “observed minus calculated” time of transits, being the observed deviation of a transit timing from the expected time. The data points are the transit timings by Jiang et al and from previous papers.
A constant orbital period would correspond to the dotted line. A very fast period change (as has been previously suggested) would correspond to the dashed curve, and Jiang et al now rule that out. Their best fit is the solid curved line, which has a slower rate of change, but still seems to suggest a changing orbital period.
This is interesting work, and if it really does reveal a period change in WASP-43b then it is highly important. My feeling is to be cautious for now. It is clear from the plot that there is scatter in the transit timings that is larger than the error bars, and we don’t really know what short-term or medium-term “noise” there might be in exoplanet transit timings, since we’re only beginning to study them.
The period change suggested by Jiang et al corresponds to a tidal decay rate specified by the number Q = 105 (where “Q” is the tidal “quality factor” that depends on how much energy is dissipated in the tidal bulge on the star during each orbit). However, it is generally considered that the Q values are more likely to be 107 for hot Jupiters (see here), which would produce a much slower orbital decay.
Thus, the period change in the above figure could be a short-timescale fluctuation (for ill-understood reasons) rather than the true long-term orbital-period decay. The fact that, by adding more timings, Jiang et al have reduced the previous estimate for the period change by an order of magnitude suggests that the same might happen given future timings. Still, this is important work, and it will be interesting to see how it progresses.
WASP-43b is one of the more extreme hot Jupiters found by WASP-South, orbiting its star in only 19 hours, making it the hot-Jupiter planet closest to its star, where its atmosphere gets blasted by the stellar irradiation. Since the host star is relatively dim, a K7V dwarf smaller and fainter than our Sun, the planet’s light is relatively easy to see and thus the system is a prime target for characterising exoplanet atmospheres.
Now, NASA have put out a press release regarding a Hubble Space Telescope observation of WASP-43b which monitored the planet around three of its orbits.
By recording the changes in the observed light around the orbit, as the irradiated face of the planet swings into view and then faces away again, the team have mapped the temperature and the distribution of water vapour of the planet’s atmosphere.
The image (Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)) shows the changing view of WASP-43b around its orbit, illustrating the hot, blasted heated face and the darker atmosphere pointing away from the star.
The planet is phase-locked to the orbit by tidal forces, always pointing the same face to its star, and thus we expect dramatic winds as the planet’s atmosphere redistributes heat from the star-facing side to the cooler side.
The Hubble observations are reported in three papers, one accepted for Science, lead by Kevin Stevenson of the University of Chicago (arXiv link). A second paper, led by Laura Kreidberg, also of the University of Chicago, shows that the abundance of water in WASP-43b’s atmosphere is compatible with that in the Sun (arXiv link). A third paper, led by Tiffany Kataria of the University of Arizona, models the planet’s atmospheric circulation (arXiv link).
WASP-43b was announced in 2011 by the WASP-South team in a paper led by Coel Hellier of Keele University.