Astronomers Measure the Layers of an Exoplanet's Atmosphere

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s data was used to analyze the atmosphere of the super-hot exoplanet WASP-79b, located 780 light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. Among exoplanets, WASP-79b is among the largest ever observed. The planet is larger than Jupiter, and its very deep, hazy atmosphere sizzles at 1,650 degrees Celsius – the temperature of molten glass. The Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories measured how starlight is filtered through the planet's atmosphere, allowing for its chemical composition to be analyzed. Hubble has detected the presence of water vapor. The surprise in recently published results, is that the planet's sky doesn't have any evidence for an atmospheric phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering, where certain colors of light are dispersed by very fine dust particles in the upper atmosphere. Rayleigh scattering is what makes Earth's skies blue by scattering the shorter (bluer) wavelengths of sunlight. Because WASP-79b doesn't seem to have this phenomenon, the daytime sky would likely be yellowish, researchers say. Link: NASA Press Release

The number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown exponentially in the past twenty years, with 4,919 confirmed exoplanets (and another 8,493 awaiting confirmation)! Combined with improved instruments and data analysis, the field of study is entering into an exciting new phase. In short, the focus is shifting from discovery to characterization, where astronomers can place greater constraints on potential habitability.

In particular, the characterization of exoplanet atmospheres will allow astronomers to determine their chemical makeup and whether they have the right characteristics to support life. In a new study led by the University of Lund, an international team of researchers characterized the atmosphere of one of the most extreme exoplanets yet discovered. This included discerning what could be several distinct layers that have particular characteristics.

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See the Moon Photobomb Saturn in an Amazing Capture

Saturn photobomb
A composite capture of Saturn versus the Moon, minutes before the March 31st occultation. Image credit and copyright: Cory Schmitz,

Welcome to Saturn, as you’ve probably never seen it. It’s always awe-inspiring to see the clockwork motion of the heavens, transpire in real time. In a slow motion Universe, occultations give us the chance to see the cosmos pull off a celestial hat-trick. This can appear as a split second-type of event—such as when the Moon, a planet or an asteroid winks out a distant star—or transpire as a leisurely affair as the Moon covers, then uncovers the disk of a planet.

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It’s Been Three Years Since We’ve Had a Supernova This Close

Artistic impression of a star going supernova, casting its chemically enriched contents into the universe. Credit: NASA/Swift/Skyworks Digital/Dana Berry

A supernova is one of the most impressive astronomical events anyone can possibly witness. Characterized by a massive explosion that takes place during the final stages of a massive star’s life (after billions of years of evolution), this sort of event is understandably quite rare. In fact, within the Milky Way Galaxy, a supernova event is likely to happen just once a century.

But within the Fireworks Galaxy (aka. the spiral galaxy NGC 6946), which is located 22 million light years from Earth and has half as many stars as our galaxy, supernovae are about ten times more frequent. On May 13th, while examining this galaxy from his home in Utah, amateur astronomer Patrick Wiggins spotted what was later confirmed to be a Type II supernova.

To break this magnificent astronomical event down, most supernova can be placed into two categories. Type I Supernovae occur when a smaller star has consumed all of its nuclear fuel, and then undergoes core collapse with the help of additional matter accreted from a nearby orbiting star. Type II Supernovae are the result of massive stars undergoing core collapse all on their own.

The confirmed supernova, “SN 2017aew”, which can be seen on the top right side of the “Fireworks Galaxy”. Click to see animation. Credit: Patrick Wiggins

In both cases, the result is a sudden and extreme increase in brightness, where the star blows off its outer layers and may become temporarily brighter than all the other stars in its galaxy. It then spends the next few months slowly fading until it becomes a white dwarf. It was while surveying the Fireworks galaxy with his own telescope that Wiggins noticed such a sudden burst in brightness, which had not been there just two nights before.

Wiggins finding was confirmed a day later (May 14th) by two experts in supernovae – Subo Dong and Krzysztof Z. Stanek, two professors from Peking University and Ohio State University, respectively. After conducting observations of their own, they determined that what Wiggins had witnessed was a Type II supernova, which has since been designated as SN 2017eaw.

In addition to being an amateur astronomer, Patrick Wiggins is also the public outreach educator for the University of Utah’s Department of Physics & Astronomy and the NASA Solar System Ambassador to Utah. This supernova, which was the third Wiggins has observed in his lifetime, is also the closest to Earth in three years, being about 22 million light years from Earth.

The last time a supernova was observed exploding this close to Earth was on January 22nd, 2014. At the time, students at the University of London Observatory spotted an exploding star (SN 2014J) in the nearby Cigar Galaxy (aka. M82), which is located around 12 million light years away. This was the closest supernova to be observed in recent decades.

Animation showing a comparison between M82 on Jan. 22nd, 2014 Nov. 22nd, 2013. Credit: E. Guido/N. Howes/M. Nicolini

As such, the observation of a supernova at a comparatively close distance to Earth just three years later is a pretty impressive feat. And it is an additional feather in the cap of an amateur astronomer whose resume is already quite impressive! Besides the three supernova he was observed, Wiggins has received many accolades over the years for his contributions to astronomy.

These include the Distinguished Public Service Medal, which is the highest civilian honor NASA can bestow. In addition, he discovered an asteroid in 2008 which the IAU – at Wiggin’s request – officially named “Univofutah”, in honor of the University of Utah. He is also a member of the Phun with Physics team, which provides free scientific lessons at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Further Reading: University of Utah UNews