Instead of Losing its Atmosphere, an Exoplanet Puffed Up and Held Onto it

Artist's impression of the "hot Neptune" Phoenix orbiting its red giant star. Credit: Credit: Roberto Molar Candanosa/JHU

To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 5638 extrasolar planets in 4,199 star systems. In the process, scientists have found many worlds that have defied expectations. This is certainly the case regarding “hot Neptunes,” planets that are similar to the “ice giants” of the outer Solar System but orbit much closer to their stars. But when a Johns Hopkins University-led team of astronomers discovered TIC365102760 b (aka. Pheonix), they observed something entirely unexpected: a Neptune-sized planet that retained its atmosphere by puffing up.

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Astronomers Discover the Second-Lightest “Cotton Candy” Exoplanet to Date.

A NASA illustration of the giant planet WASP-193b and its star. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA)

The hunt for extrasolar planets has revealed some truly interesting candidates, not the least of which are planets known as “Hot Jupiters.” This refers to a particular class of gas giants comparable in size to Jupiter but which orbit very closely to their suns. Strangely, there are some gas giants out there that have very low densities, raising questions about their formation and evolution. This is certainly true of the Kepler 51 system, which contains no less than three “super puff” planets similar in size to Jupiter but is about one hundred times less dense.

These planets also go by the moniker “cotton candy” giants because their density is comparable to this staple confection. In a recent study, an international team of astronomers spotted another massive planet, WASP-193b, a fluffy gas giant orbiting a Sun-like star 1,232 light-years away. While this planet is roughly one and a half times the size of Jupiter, it is only about 14% as massive. This makes WASP-193b the second-lightest exoplanet observed to date. Studying this and other “cotton candy” exoplanets could provide valuable insight into how these mysterious giants form.

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You Can't Know the True Size of an Exoplanet Without Knowing its Star's Magnetic Field

Artist's impression of a "hot Jupiter" orbiting close to a Sun-like star. Credit: NASA

In 2011, astronomers with the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) consortium detected a gas giant orbiting very close to a Sun-like (G-type) star about 700 light-years away. This planet is known as WASP-39b (aka. “Bocaprins”), one of many “hot Jupiters” discovered in recent decades that orbits its star at a distance of less than 5% the distance between the Earth and the Sun (0.05 AU). In 2022, shortly after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) it became the first exoplanet to have carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide detected in its atmosphere.

Alas, researchers have not constrained all of WASP-39b’s crucial details (particularly its size) based on the planet’s light curves, as observed by Webb. which is holding up more precise data analyses. In a new study led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), an international team has shown a way to overcome this obstacle. They argue that considering a parent star’s magnetic field, the true size of an exoplanet in orbit can be determined. These findings are likely to significantly impact the rapidly expanding field of exoplanet study and characterization.

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Webb Finds Hints of a Third Planet at PDS 70

An artist's illustration of the PDS 70 system, not to scale. The two planets are clearing a gap in the circumstellar disk as they form. As they accrete in-falling material, the heat makes them glow. Image Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

The exoplanet census now stands at 5,599 confirmed discoveries in 4,163 star systems, with another 10,157 candidates awaiting confirmation. So far, the vast majority of these have been detected using indirect methods, including Transit Photometry (74.4%) and Radial Velocity measurements (19.4%). Only nineteen (or 1.2%) were detected via Direct Imaging, a method where light emitted or reflected from an exoplanet’s atmosphere or surface is used to detect and characterize it. Thanks to the latest generation of high-contrast and high-angular resolution instruments, this is starting to change.

This includes the James Webb Space Telescope and its sophisticated mirrors and advanced infrared imaging suite. Using data obtained by Webb‘s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), astronomers within the MIRI mid-INfrared Disk Survey (MINDS) survey recently studied a very young variable star (PDS 70) about 370 light-years away with two confirmed protoplanets. After examining the system and its extended protoplanetary disk, they found evidence of a third possible protoplanet orbiting the star. These observations could help advance our understanding of planetary systems that are still in the process of formation.

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This Hot Jupiter is Doomed to Crash Into its Star in Just Three Million Years

Artist's impression of the searing-hot gas planet WASP-12b and its star. A Princeton-led team of astrophysicists has shown that this exoplanet is spiraling in toward its host star, heading toward certain destruction in about 3 million years. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 2008, astronomers with the SuperWASP survey spotted WASP-12b as it transited in front of its star. At the time, it was part of a new class of exoplanets (“Hot Jupiters”) discovered a little more than a decade before. However, subsequent observations revealed that WASP-12b was the first Hot Jupiter observed that orbits so closely to its parent star that it has become deformed. While several plausible scenarios have been suggested to explain these observations, a widely accepted theory is that the planet is being pulled apart as it slowly falls into its star.

Based on the observed rate of “tidal decay,” astronomers estimate that WASP-12b will fall into its parent star in about ten million years. In a recent study, astronomers with The Asiago Search for Transit Timing Variations of Exoplanets (TASTE) project presented an analysis that combines new spectral data from the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG) in La Palma with 12 years worth of unpublished transit light curves and archival data. Their results are consistent with previous observations that suggest WASP-12b is rapidly undergoing tidal dissipation and will be consumed by its star.

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Science Fiction is Learning About Exoplanets From Science

Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the surface of an Earth-like exoplanet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

As long as it has existed as a genre, there has been a notable relationship between science fiction and science fact. Since our awareness of the Universe and everything in it has changed with time, so have depictions and representations in popular culture. This includes everything from space exploration and extraterrestrial life to extraterrestrial environments. As scientists keep pushing the boundaries of what is known about the cosmos, their discoveries are being related to the public in film, television, print, and other media.

In the field of science communication, however, there is a certain hesitancy to use science fiction materials as an educational tool. In a recent paper that appeared in the Journal of Science Communication (JCOM), a team from the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science and the Space Research Institute (IWF) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences focused on a specific area of scientific study – extrasolar planets. After analyzing a multimedia body of science fiction works produced since the first confirmed exoplanet discovery, they found that depictions have become more realistic over time.

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Astronomers Image 62 Newly-Forming Planetary Systems

Planet-forming discs in three clouds of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO.

Astronomers using the Very Large Telescope in Chile have now completed one of the largest surveys ever to hunt for planet-forming discs. They were able to find dozens of dusty regions around young stars, directly imaging the swirling gas and dust which hints at the locations of these new worlds.

Just like the wide variety in the types of exoplanets that have been discovered, these new data and stunning images show how protoplanetary systems are surprisingly diverse, with different sizes and shapes of disks.

In research presented in three new papers, researchers imaged 86 young stars and found 62 of them had a wide range of star-forming regions surrounding them. The astronomers say this study provides a wealth of data and unique insights into how planets arise in different regions of our galaxy.

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Six Planets Found Orbiting an Extremely Young Star

Artist rendering of the TOI-1136 system and its young star flaring. Credit: Rae Holcomb/Paul Robertson/UCI

The field of exoplanet study continues to grow by leaps and bounds. As of the penning of this article, 5,572 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 4,150 systems (with another 10,065 candidates awaiting confirmation. Well, buckle up because six more exoplanets have been confirmed around TOI-1136, a Sun-like star located roughly 276 light-years from Earth. This star is less than 700 million years old, making it relatively young compared to our own (4.6 billion years). This system will allow astronomers to observe how systems like our own have evolved with time.

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Webb Blocks the Star to See a Debris Disk Around Beta Pictoris

This image from Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) shows the star system Beta Pictoris. An edge-on disc of dusty debris generated by collisions between planetesimals (orange) dominates the view. A hotter, secondary disc (cyan) is inclined by about 5 degrees relative to the primary disc. The curved feature at upper right, which the science team nicknamed the “cat’s tail,” has never been seen before. A coronagraph (black circle and bar) has been used to block the light of the central star, whose location is marked with a white star shape. In this image light at 15.5 microns is coloured cyan and 23 microns is orange (filters F1550C and F2300C, respectively). [Image description: A wide, thin horizontal orange line appears at the centre, extending almost to the edges, a debris disc seen edge-on. A thin blue-green disc is inclined about five degrees counterclockwise relative to the main orange disc. Cloudy, translucent grey material is most prominent near the orange main debris disc. Some of the grey material forms a curved feature in the upper right, resembling a cat’s tail. At the centre is a black circle with a bar. The central star, represented as a small white star icon, is blocked by an instrument known as a coronagraph. The background of space is black.]

You think you know someone, then you see them in a slightly different way and BAM, they surprise you. I’m not talking about other people of course, I’m talking about a fabulous star that has been studied and imaged a gazillion times. Beta Pictoris has been revealed by many telescopes, even Hubble to be home to the most amazing disk. Enter James Webb Space Telescopd and WALLOP, with its increased sensitivty and instrumentation a new, exciting feature emerges. 

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Hubble Watches an Exoplanet Atmosphere Change Over Three Years

An artist impression of Tylos, also known as WASP-121 b. It has a hot exoplanet atmosphere that seems to be changing over time. Courtesy: NASA, ESA, Q. Changeat et al., M. Zamani (ESA/Hubble
An artist impression of Tylos, also known as WASP-121 b. It has a hot exoplanet atmosphere that seems to be changing over time. Courtesy: NASA, ESA, Q. Changeat et al., M. Zamani (ESA/Hubble)

If you want to know more about an exoplanet atmosphere, watch how it changes over time. That’s the mantra of a group of astronomers who just reported on conditions at Tylos, otherwise known as WASP-121 b.

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