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.
A new paper by Joshua Kammer et al reports observations of 5 transiting hot-Jupiter planets with the Spitzer Space Telescope. The Spitzer infra-red observations looked for the occultation of the planet, when it passes behind its host star. By comparing the observed emission in and out of the occultation one can deduce the temperature of the planet’s atmosphere.
Kammer and colleagues chose to look at 5 relatively cool hot-Jupiter planets (ones around cooler stars, or orbiting further from the star), with expected temperatures in the range 900 to 1200 K. Of the 5, four were WASP planets (WASP-6b, WASP-10b, WASP-39b and WASP-67b).
The point of looking at cooler planets is that the ratio of the light in two Spitzer pass-bands, 3.6 and 4.5 microns, is expected to depend on the metallicity (the abundance of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium) of the planet’s atmosphere.
The authors found a tentative but possible relation between that ratio and the mass of the planet.
The plot shows the brightness ratio in the two pass-bands against planet mass. The named planets are also colour-coded by the planet’s temperature (where the top bar shows the scale in Kelvin). There is a possible trend to a higher ratio at higher masses (WASP-8b is a clear outlier to the trend, and the authors suggest that this might be because it is in a highly eccentric orbit).
Kammer et al say that “If this trend can be confirmed, it would suggest that the shape of these planets’ emission spectra depends primarily on their masses, consistent with the hypothesis that lower-mass planets are more likely to have metal-rich atmospheres.”
WASP-6b was WASP-South’s third planet, announced in 2009 by Gillon et al. It is a good target for studying exoplanet atmospheres since it is a bloated planet, only half a Jupiter mass but 20% larger than Jupiter.
Nikolov et al (2014) have now pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at WASP-6b in transit, using the STIS spectrograph. They find that the transit depth varies with colour; effectively the planet looks slightly larger in blue light, since small particles in the planet’s atmosphere are scattering blue light more than red light.
The strong blue slope in the plot is characteristic of Rayleigh scattering, the same effect that causes Earth’s atmosphere to look blue (in the plot the red line is a Rayleigh-scattering model, though other model fits are possible).
Nikolov etal state that: “With a broad-coverage optical transmission spectrum measured from HST and Spitzer broad-band transit spectrophotometry, WASP-6b joins the small but highly valuable family of hot-Jupiter exoplanets with atmospheric constraints.”
The field of exoplanet atmospheres is growing rapidly in importance, and it is good to see WASP planets being chosen as prime targets for such work.