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Hubble Space Telescope reveals variation between hot extrasolar planet atmospheres

First results from the analysis of eight ‘hot Jupiter’ exoplanets suggest that winds and clouds play an important role in the atmospheric make up of these exotic planets.  Catherine Huitson of the University of Exeter will present the results at the National Astronomy Meeting in St Andrews on Friday 5 July.

Hothuitson1 smallAn artist's impression of a hot Jupiter. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI) Jupiters are giant exoplanets, similar in size to Jupiter, that orbit so close to their stars that their atmospheres can reach temperatures of 1000-3000 degrees Celsius.  Astronomers can detect which gases are present in their atmospheres by analysing the spectrum of starlight filtered through the planet’s atmosphere when the planet passes in front of the star. Last year, a team led by the University of Exeter was awarded nearly 200 hours on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to examine eight planets using this technique – the largest survey of its type to date.

“These hot Jupiter planets are expected to have a vastly different composition from planets in our own Solar System like Jupiter, where temperatures at the cloud tops are around -150 degrees Celsius.  The first planet we measured is one of the hottest to be observed, with a temperature of over 2000 degrees.  The early results of the survey are now in, and they present a diverse range of puzzling properties,” said Huitson.

The first, very hot planet observed showed an unexpected absence of titanium oxide.  Current 3D models of hot Jupiter atmospheres suggest that grains of this heavy molecule should be circulated by fast winds, allowing gaseous titanium oxide to reach the observable upper atmosphere.  The non-detection of the gas suggests that either the winds are not as strong as expected or the molecule is forming much larger grains that are too heavy be lifted.

Huitson explained, “Titanium oxide is a solid on Earth, but we expect it to be present in the atmosphere of the hottest hot Jupiters because of the extreme temperatures.  This molecule is important because it could trap atmospheric heat high up forming a stratosphere – the same role ozone plays on Earth. However, our results show that this molecule is not present in the upper atmosphere, meaning that we need to revise our understanding of how wind processes distribute materials.”

The team also made a confirmed detection of water vapour in the atmosphere of two planets.  Importantly, the water was found in the quantities predicted by theory, contrasting with previously observed planets.

“While our models tell us that water (as steam) should be present in hot Jupiter atmospheres, until now the molecule has only been seen in limited quantities and in fewer planets than expected,” said Huitson.  “Seeing steam in two exoplanets is a great confirmation of current theory.  Our new findings suggest that previous non-detections were caused by opaque, high-up clouds obscuring the parts of the atmosphere where steam is present.”

The results presented at the National Astronomy Meeting represent initial findings and work by the team is still ongoing to analyse all the data from the eight-planet Hubble survey.

“A surprising diversity is emerging from the continuing observations among planets with similar temperatures, and the remaining results are sure to present even more surprises as we try to understand such extreme and unknown objects,” said Huitson.

 


 

IMAGES

http://www.spacetelescope.org/static/archives/images/screen/opo0707a.jpg Figure1: An artist's impression of the sort of a hot Jupiter (credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)).

Figure 2: Diagram showing the method used to detect atmospheric components (credit ESA/David Sing). http://www.exoclimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/transmission_very_hot_jupiter.pdf

 


 

SCIENCE CONTACTS

Catherine Huitson

University of Exeter

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Tel: 01392 725571

From 1-5 July, Catherine Huitson can be contacted through the NAM Press Office.

 

MEDIA CONTACTS

Ms Anita Heward Royal Astronomical Society

Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Dr Robert Massey Royal Astronomical Society

Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307 / 4582 x214

Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Ms Emma Shea

Head of Development Communications

University of St Andrews

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462 167

Mob: +44 (0)785 090 0352

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

 

Landline numbers in NAM 2013 press room (available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from 1-4 July, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 5 July):  

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462231, +44 (0)1334 46 2232  

 


 

 

 

NOTES FOR EDITORS

Bringing together more than 600 astronomers and space scientists, the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2013) will take place from 1-5 July 2013 at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. The conference is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP: www.uksolphys.org) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar Terrestrial (MIST: www.mist.ac.uk) meetings. NAM 2013 is principally sponsored by the RAS, STFC and the University of St Andrews and will form part of the ongoing programme to celebrate the University’s 600th anniversary.   Meeting arrangements and a full and up to date schedule of the scientific programme can be found on the official website at http://www.nam2013.co.uk

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS: www.ras.org.uk, Twitter: @royalastrosoc), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

 

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC: www.stfc.ac.uk, Twitter: @stfc_matters) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar. It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities for example in the area of astronomy, the European Southern Observatory.

 

Founded in the 15th century, St Andrews is Scotland’s first university and the third oldest in the English speaking world. Teaching began in the community of St Andrews in 1410 and the University was formally constituted by the issue of Papal Bull in 1413. The University is now one of Europe’s most research intensive seats of learning – over a quarter of its turnover comes from research grants and contracts. It is one of the top rated universities in Europe for research, teaching quality and student satisfaction and is consistently ranked among the UK’s top five in leading independent league tables produced by The Times, The Guardian and the Sunday Times.

The University is currently celebrating its 600th anniversary and pursuing a £100 million fundraising campaign, launched by Patron and alumnus HRH Prince William Duke of Cambridge, including £4 million to fund the creation of an ‘Other Worlds’ Think Tank and Observatory. The new think tank and Observatory project will extend the University of St Andrews’ flagship work on extra-solar planets, and provide a creative environment for problem-focused research, education and continuing public engagement.

For further information go to: www.st-andrews.ac.uk/600/

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