In the past thirty years, the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown exponentially. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of our technology, the vast majority of these exoplanets have been discovered by indirect means, often by detecting the transits of planets in front of their stars (the Transit Method) or by the gravitational influence they exert on their star (the Radial Velocity Method).
Very few have been imaged directly, where the planets have been observed in visible light or infrared wavelengths. One such planet is Beta Pictoris b, a young massive exoplanet that was first observed in 2008 by a team from the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Recently, the same team tracked this planet as it orbited its star, resulting in some stunning images and an equally impressive time-lapse video.
Between the planets of the inner and outer Solar System, there are some stark differences. The planets that resides closer to the Sun are terrestrial (i.e. rocky) in nature, meaning that they are composed of silicate minerals and metals. Beyond the Asteroid Belt, however, the planets are predominantly composed of gases, and are much larger than their terrestrial peers.
This is why astronomers use the term “gas giants” when referring to the planets of the outer Solar System. The more we’ve come to know about these four planets, the more we’ve come to understand that no two gas giants are exactly alike. In addition, ongoing studies of planets beyond our Solar System (aka. “extra-solar planets“) has shown that there are many types of gas giants that do not conform to Solar examples. So what exactly is a “gas giant”?
Definition and Classification:
By definition, a gas giant is a planet that is primarily composed of hydrogen and helium. The name was originally coined in 1952 by James Blish, a science fiction writer who used the term to refer to all giant planets. In truth, the term is something of a misnomer, since these elements largely take a liquid and solid form within a gas giant, as a result of the extreme pressure conditions that exist within the interior.
What’s more, gas giants are also thought to have large concentrations of metal and silicate material in their cores. Nevertheless, the term has remained in popular usage for decades and refers to all planets – be they Solar or extra-solar in nature – that are composed mainly of gases. It is also in keeping with the practice of planetary scientists, who use a shorthand – i.e. “rock”, “gas”, and “ice” – to classify planets based on the most common element within them.
Hence the difference between Jupiter and Saturn on the one and, and Uranus and Neptune on the other. Due to the high concentrations of volatiles (such as water, methane and ammonia) within the latter two – which planetary scientists classify as “ices” – these two giant planets are often called “ice giants”. But since they are composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, they are still considered gas giants alongside Jupiter and Saturn.
Today, Gas giants are divided into five classes, based on the classification scheme proposed by David Sudarki (et al.) in a 2000 study. Titled “Albedo and Reflection Spectra of Extrasolar Giant Planets“, Sudarsky and his colleagues designated five different types of gas giant based on their appearances and albedo, and how this is affected by their respective distances from their star.
Class I: Ammonia Clouds – this class applies to gas giants whose appearances are dominated by ammonia clouds, and which are found in the outer regions of a planetary system. In other words, it applies only to planets that are beyond the “Frost Line”, the distance in a solar nebula from the central protostar where volatile compounds – i.e. water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide – condense into solid ice grains.
Class II: Water Clouds – this applies to planets that have average temperatures typically below 250 K (-23 °C; -9 °F), and are therefore too warm to form ammonia clouds. Instead, these gas giants have clouds that are formed from condensed water vapor. Since water is more reflective than ammonia, Class II gas giants have higher albedos.
Class III: Cloudless – this class applies to gas giants that are generally warmer – 350 K (80 °C; 170 °F) to 800 K ( 530 °C; 980 °F) – and do not form cloud cover because they lack the necessary chemicals. These planets have low albedos since they do not reflect as much light into space. These bodies would also appear like clear blue globes because of the way methane in their atmospheres absorbs light (like Uranus and Neptune).
Class IV: Alkali Metals – this class of planets experience temperatures in excess of 900 K (627 °C; 1160 °F), at which point Carbon Monoxide becomes the dominant carbon-carrying molecule in their atmospheres (rather than methane). The abundance of alkali metals also increases substantially, and cloud decks of silicates and metals form deep in their atmospheres. Planets belonging to Class IV and V are referred to as “Hot Jupiters”.
Class V: Silicate Clouds – this applies to the hottest of gas giants, with temperatures above 1400 K (1100 °C; 2100 °F), or cooler planets with lower gravity than Jupiter. For these gas giants, the silicate and iron cloud decks are believed to be high up in the atmosphere. In the case of the former, such gas giants are likely to glow red from thermal radiation and reflected light.
The study of exoplanets has also revealed a wealth of other types of gas giants that are more massive than the Solar counterparts (aka. Super-Jupiters) as well as many that are comparable in size. Other discoveries have been a fraction of the size of their solar counterparts, while some have been so massive that they are just shy of becoming a star. However, given their distance from Earth, their spectra and albedo have cannot always be accurately measured.
As such, exoplanet-hunters tend to designate extra-solar gas giants based on their apparent sizes and distances from their stars. In the case of the former, they are often referred to as “Super-Jupiters”, Jupiter-sized, and Neptune-sized. To date, these types of exoplanet account for the majority of discoveries made by Kepler and other missions, since their larger sizes and greater distances from their stars makes them the easiest to detect.
In terms of their respective distances from their sun, exoplanet-hunters divide extra-solar gas giants into two categories: “cold gas giants” and “hot Jupiters”. Typically, cold hydrogen-rich gas giants are more massive than Jupiter but less than about 1.6 Jupiter masses, and will only be slightly larger in volume than Jupiter. For masses above this, gravity will cause the planets to shrink.
Exoplanet surveys have also turned up a class of planet known as “gas dwarfs”, which applies to hydrogen planets that are not as large as the gas giants of the Solar System. These stars have been observed to orbit close to their respective stars, causing them to lose atmospheric mass faster than planets that orbit at greater distances.
For gas giants that occupy the mass range between 13 to 75-80 Jupiter masses, the term “brown dwarf” is used. This designation is reserved for the largest of planetary/substellar objects; in other words, objects that are incredibly large, but not quite massive enough to undergo nuclear fusion in their core and become a star. Below this range are sub-brown dwarfs, while anything above are known as the lightest red dwarf (M9 V) stars.
Like all things astronomical in nature, gas giants are diverse, complex, and immensely fascinating. Between missions that seek to examine the gas giants of our Solar System directly to increasingly sophisticated surveys of distant planets, our knowledge of these mysterious objects continues to grow. And with that, so is our understanding of how star systems form and evolve.
Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have measured the rotation rate of an extreme exoplanet 2M1207b by observing the varied brightness in its atmosphere. This is the first measurement of the rotation of a massive exoplanet using direct imaging.
Little by little we’re coming to know at least some of the 2,085 exoplanets discovered to date more intimately despite their great distances and proximity to the blinding light of their host stars. 2M1207b is about four times more massive than Jupiter and dubbed a “super-Jupiter”. Super-Jupiters fill the gap between Jupiter-mass planets and brown dwarf stars. They can be up to 80 times more massive than Jupiter yet remain nearly the same size as that planet because gravity compresses the material into an ever denser, more compact sphere.
2M1207b lies 170 light years from Earth and orbits a brown dwarfat a distance of 5 billion miles. By contrast, Jupiter is approximately 500 million miles from the sun. You’ll often hear brown dwarfs described as “failed stars” because they’re not massive enough for hydrogen fusion to fire up in their cores the way it does in our sun and all the rest of the main sequence stars.
Researchers used Hubble’s exquisite resolution to precisely measure the planet’s brightness changes as it spins and nailed the rotation rate at 10 hours, virtually identical to Jupiter’s. While it’s fascinating to know a planet’s spin, there’s more to this extraordinary exoplanet. Hubble data confirmed the rotation but also showed the presence of patchy, “colorless” (white presumably) cloud layers. While perhaps ordinary in appearance, the composition of the clouds is anything but.
The planet appears bright in infrared light because it’s young (about 10 million years old) and still contracting, releasing gravitational potential energy that heats it from the inside out. All that extra heat makes 2M1207b’s atmosphere hot enough to form “rain” clouds made of vaporized rock. The rock cools down to form tiny particles with sizes similar to those in cigarette smoke. Deeper into the atmosphere, iron droplets are forming and falling like rain, eventually evaporating as they enter the lower levels of the atmosphere.
“So at higher altitudes it rains glass, and at lower altitudes it rains iron,” said Yifan Zhou of the University of Arizona, lead author on the research paper in a recent Astrophysical Journal. “The atmospheric temperatures are between about 2,200 to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit.” Every day’s a scorcher on 2M1207b.
Both Jupiter and Saturn also emit more heat than they receive from the sun because they too are still contracting despite being 450 times older. The bigger you are, the slower you chill.
All the planets in our Solar System possess only a fraction of the mass of the Sun. Even mighty Jove is a thousand times less massive. But Mr. Super-Jupiter’s a heavyweight compared to its brown dwarf host, being just 5-7 times less massive. While Jupiter and the rest of the planets formed by the accretion of dust and rocks within a clumpy disk of material surrounding the early Sun, it’s thought 2M1207b and its companion may have formed throughout the gravitational collapse of a pair of separate disks.
This super-Jupiter will an ideal target for the James Webb Space Telescope, a space observatory optimized for the infrared scheduled to launch in 2018. With its much larger mirror — 21-feet (6.5-meters) — Webb will help astronomers better determine the exoplanet’s atmospheric composition and created more detailed maps from brightness changes.
Teasing out the details of 2M1207b’s atmosphere and rotation introduces us to a most alien world the likes of which never evolved in our own Solar System. I feel like I’m aboard the Starship Enterprise visiting far-flung worlds. Only this is better. It’s real.