Flying Space Toasters: Electrified Exoplanets Really Feel the Heat

Overheated and overinflated, hot Jupiters are some of the strangest extrasolar planets to be discovered by the Kepler mission… and they may be even more exotic than anyone ever thought. A new model proposed by Florida Gulf Coast University astronomer Dr. Derek Buzasi suggests that these worlds are intensely affected by electric currents that link them to their host stars. In Dr. Buzasi’s model, electric currents arising from interactions between the planet’s magnetic field and their star’s stellar wind flow through the interior of the planet, puffing it up and heating it like an electric toaster.

In effect, hot Jupiters are behaving like giant resistors within exoplanetary systems.

Many of the planets found by the Kepler mission are of a type known as “hot Jupiters.” While about the same size as Jupiter in our own solar system, these exoplanets are located much closer to their host stars than Mercury is to the Sun — meaning that their atmospheres are heated to several thousands of degrees.

One problem scientists have had in understanding hot Jupiters is that many are inflated to sizes larger than expected for planets so close to their stars. Explanations for the “puffiness” of these exoplanets have generally involved some kind of extra heating process — but no model successfully explains the observation that more magnetically active stars tend to have puffier hot Jupiters orbiting around them.

“This kind of electric heating doesn’t happen very effectively on planets in our solar system because their outer atmospheres are cold and don’t conduct electricity very well,” says Dr. Buzasi. “But heat up the atmosphere by moving the planet closer to its star and now very large currents can flow, which delivers extra heat to the deep interior of the planet — just where we need it.”

More magnetically active stars have more energetic winds, and would provide larger currents — and thus more heat — to their planets.

The currents start in the magnetosphere, the area where the stellar wind meets the planetary magnetic field, and enter the planet near its north and south poles. This so-called “global electric circuit” (GEC) exists on Earth as well, but the currents involved are only a few thousand amps at 100,000 volts or less.

On the hot Jupiters, though, currents can amount to billions of amps at voltages of millions of volts — a “significant current,” according to Dr. Buzasi.

A Spitzer-generated exoplanet weather map showing temperatures on a hot Jupiter HAT-P-2b.
A Spitzer-generated exoplanet weather map showing temperatures on hot Jupiter HAT-P-2b.

“It is believed that these hot Jupiter planets formed farther out and migrated inwards later, but we don’t yet fully understand the details of the migration mechanism,” Dr. Buzasi says. “The better we can model how these planets are built, the better we can understand how solar systems form. That in turn, would help astronomers understand why our solar system is different from most, and how it got that way.”

Other electrical heating processes have previously been suggested by other researchers as well, once hints of magnetic fields in exoplanets were discovered in 2003 and models of atmospheric wind drag — generating frictional heating — as a result of moving through these fields were made in 2010.

(And before anyone attempts to suggest this process supports the alternative “electric universe” (EU) theory… um, no.)

“No, nothing EU-like at all in my model,” Dr. Buzasi told Universe Today in an email. “I just look at how the field aligned currents that we see in the terrestrial magnetosphere/ionosphere act in a hot Jupiter environment, and it turns out that a significant fraction of the resulting circuit closes inside the planet (in the outer 10% of the radius, mostly) where it deposits a meaningful amount of heat.”

This work will be presented at the 222nd meeting of the American Astronomical Society on June 4, 2013.

Dust in the Wind

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The stellar wind, that is! This beautiful image, taken by NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE) shows a vast ring of interstellar dust and gas being forced outwards by the wind and radiation from a massive star.

The star, HR8281, is located in the center of the image, the topmost star in a small triangular formation of blue stars to the upper left of the tip of a bright elongated structure – the end of the “elephant trunk” that gives the nebula its name. The star may not look like much, but HR8281’s powerful stellar wind is what’s sculpting the huge cloud of dust into the beautiful shapes seen in this infrared image.

Located 2,450 light-years from Earth, the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula spans 100 light-years. The “trunk” itself is about 30 light-years long. (That’s about, oh… 180 trillion miles!)

Structures like this are common in nebulae. They are formed when the stellar wind – the outpouring of ultraviolet radiation and charged particles that are constantly streaming off stars – blows away the gas and dust near a star, leaving only the densest areas. It’s basically erosion on a massive interstellar scale.

The tip of the "trunk" and the triangle of stars, the topmost of which is HR8281.

It’s not just a destructive process, though. Within those dense areas new stars can form… in fact, in the bright tip of the trunk above a small dark spot can be seen. That’s an area that’s been cleared by the creation of a new star. When a baby star “ignites” and its nuclear fusion factory turns on, its stellar wind clears away the dust and gas in the cloud it was formed from. Nebulae aren’t just pretty clouds in space… they’re stellar nurseries!

The red-colored stars in this image are other newborn stars, still wrapped in their dusty “cocoons”.

The colors used in this image represent specific wavelengths of infrared light. Blue and cyan (blue-green) represent light emitted at wavelengths of 3.4 and 4.6 microns, which is predominantly from stars. Green and red represent light from 12 and 22 microns, respectively, which is mostly emitted by dust.

Read more about this image on the WISE site here.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team