Astronomers estimate that in about four billion years, our Sun will exit the main sequence phase of its existence and become a red giant. This will consist of the Sun running out of hydrogen and expanding to several times its current size. This will cause Earth to become uninhabitable since this Red Giant Sun will either blow away Earth’s atmosphere (rendering the surface uninhabitable) or expand to consume Earth entirely.
In a lot of ways, Earth is getting off easy with these predicted scenarios. Other planets, such as WASP-12b, don’t have the luxury of waiting billions of years for their star to reach the end of its lifespan before eating them up. According to a recent study by a team of Princeton-led astrophysicists, this extrasolar planet is spiraling in towards its star and will be consumed in a fiery death just 3 million years from now.
The study of extra-solar planets has revealed discoveries that have confounded expectations and boggled the mind! Whether it’s Super-Earths that become diamond planets, multiple rocky planets orbiting closely together, or “Hot Jupiters” with traces of gaseous metal in their atmospheres, there’s been no shortage of planets out there for which there is no comparison here in the Solar System.
In this respect, WASP-12b is in good company. This Hot-Jupiter, located in a star system 1400 light years from Earth in the direction of the Auriga constellation, was recently studied by a team of astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope. Due to the particular nature of its atmosphere, which absorbs the vast majority of light it receives instead of reflecting it, this planet appeared pitch black when observed by the Hubble team.
Like all Hot Jupiters, WASP-12b is similar in mass to Jupiter (1.35 to 1.43 Jupiter masses) and orbits very close to its star. At a distance of just 3.4 million km (2.115 million mi), or 0.0229 AU, it takes a little over a day to complete a single orbit. Because of its proximity, one side of the planet is constantly facing towards it’s sun – i.e. it is tidally locked with its star.
Because of its orbit, temperatures on the day side of the planet are estimated to reach as high as 2811 K (2538 °C; 4600 °F). It is because of these extreme temperatures that most molecules are unable to survive on the day side of the planet, so clouds cannot form to reflect light back into space. As a result, most incoming light penetrates deep into the planet’s atmosphere, where it is absorbed by hydrogen atoms and converted into heat energy.
This was what Bell and his team noticed as they observed the planet passing behind its star (aka. an optical eclipse). Using the STIS, they monitored the system for any dips in starlight, which would indicate how much reflected light was being given off by the planet. However, their observations did not detect reflected light, which indicated that the sun-facing side was absorbing most of the light it was receiving.
As Bell explained in a NASA press statement, this was quite the unusual find: “We did not expect to find such a dark exoplanet,” he said. “Most hot Jupiters reflect about 40 percent of starlight.” However, observations conducted of the night side of the planet show that things are quite different there. On this side, temperatures are about 1366 K (1093 °C; 2000 °F) cooler, which allows water vapor and clouds to form.
Back in 2013, scientists working with the HST detected traces of water vapor in the atmosphere (and possible traces of clouds as well) while studying the day/night boundary. As Bell indicated, this new research just goes to show just how diverse this type of gas giant can be:
“This new Hubble research further demonstrates the vast diversity among the strange population of hot Jupiters. You can have planets like WASP-12b that are 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit and some that are 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and they’re both called hot Jupiters. Past observations of hot Jupiters indicate that the temperature difference between the day and night sides of the planet increases with hotter day sides. This previous research suggests that more heat is being pumped into the day side of the planet, but the processes, such as winds, that carry the heat to the night side of the planet don’t keep up the pace.”
This is just the latest find in a slew that has confounded scientists expectations about exoplanets. The more we come to learn about the nature and diversity of these distant worlds, the more tantalizing they seem and the more appealing the prospect of exploring them directly someday becomes!
Surprise! Three planets believed to be good candidates for having water vapor in their atmosphere actually have much lower quantities than expected.
The planets (HD 189733b, HD 209458b, and WASP-12b) are “hot Jupiters” that are orbiting very close to their parent star, at a distance where it was expected the extreme temperatures would turn water into a vapor that could be seen from afar.
But observations of the planets with the Hubble Space Telescope, who have temperatures between 816 and 2,204 degrees Celsius (1,500 and 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit), show only a tenth to a thousandth of the water astronomers expected.
“Our water measurement in one of the planets, HD 209458b, is the highest-precision measurement of any chemical compound in a planet outside our solar system, and we can now say with much greater certainty than ever before that we’ve found water in an exoplanet,” stated Nikku Madhusudhan, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, England who led the research. “However, the low water abundance we have found so far is quite astonishing.”
This finding, if confirmed by other observations, could force exoplanet formation theory to be revised and could even have implications for how much water is available in so-called “super-Earths”, rocky planets that are somewhat larger than our own, the astronomers said.
That theory states that planets form over time as small dust particles stick to each other and grow into larger bodies. As it becomes a planet and takes on an atmosphere from surrounding gas bits, it’s believed that those elements should be “enhanced” in proportion to its star, especially in the case of oxygen. That oxygen in turn should be filled with water.
“We should be prepared for much lower water abundances than predicted when looking at super-Earths (rocky planets that are several times the mass of Earth),” Madhusudhan stated.
The research will be published today (July 24) in the Astrophysical Journal.
Since its discovery in 2008, WASP-12b has been an unusual planet. This 1.4 Jovian mass, gas giant lies so close to its parent star that gas is being stripped from its atmosphere. But being stripped away isn’t the only odd property of this planet’s atmosphere. A new study has shown that it’s full of carbon.
The discovery was published in today’s issue of Nature was led by Nikku Madhusudhan, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University in combination with the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) team that originally discovered the planet. Unlike other recent studies of planetary atmospheres, this study did not employ transit spectroscopy. Instead, the team examined the reflective properties of the planet at four wavelengths, observations of which three came from another study using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii.
To determine the composition of the atmosphere, the flux of the planet at each of these wavelengths was then compared to models of planetary atmospheres with differing compositions. The models included compounds such as methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor and ammonia as well as the temperature distribution of the planet.
For a typical hot Jupiter, models have most closely fit a ratio of about 0.5 for carbon to oxygen which suggests that oxygen is more prevalent in the atmospheres, often in the form of water vapor, as well as very little methane. For WASP-12b, Madhusudhan’s team found an abundance of more than 100 times that of standard hot Jupiters for methane (CH4). When examining the carbon to oxygen ratio, they discovered a ratio greater than one implying that the planet is unusually carbon rich.
While WASP-12b is certainly not a friendly place for life, the discovery of a planet with so much carbon may hold implications for life elsewhere in the universe. Astronomers expect that the abundance was due to the formation of the planet from rocky materials high in carbon as opposed to icy bodies like comets. This suggests that there may be an entire range of carbon abundances available for planets. With the versatility of carbon for forming organic compounds, this enhanced abundance may lead to other, rocky planets covered in tar like substances rife with organics.
The team speculates that such worlds may exist in the same solar system. Previous studies have shown that WASP-12b’s orbit is not circular and some have suggested that this may indicate the presence of another body which tugs on 12b’s orbit.
We all like a hot meal, but this is really bizarre. Back in February, Jean wrote an article about WASP-12b, the hottest known planet in the Milky Way that is being ripped to shreds by its parent star. Shu-lin Li of the Department of Astronomy at the Peking University, Beijing, predicted that the star’s gravity would distort the planet’s surface and make the interior of the planet so hot that the atmosphere would expand out and co-mingle with the star. Shu-lin calculated the planet would one day be completely consumed. Now the Hubble Space Telescope has confirmed this prediction, and astronomers estimate the planet may only have another 10 million years left before it is completely devoured.
Using the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), and its sensitive ultraviolet instruments, astronomers saw that the star and the planet’s atmosphere share elements, passing them back and forth. “We see a huge cloud of material around the planet, which is escaping and will be captured by the star. We have identified chemical elements never before seen on planets outside our own solar system,” says team leader Carole Haswell of The Open University in Great Britain.
This effect of matter exchange between two stellar objects is commonly seen in close binary star systems, but this is the first time it has been seen so clearly for a planet.
The planet, called WASP-12b, is so close to its sunlike star that it completes an orbit in 1.1 days, and is heated to nearly 1,540 C (2,800 F) and stretched into a football shape by enormous tidal forces. The atmosphere has ballooned to nearly three times Jupiter’s radius and is spilling material onto the star. The planet is 40 percent more massive than Jupiter.
WASP-12 is a yellow dwarf star located approximately 600 light-years away in the winter constellation Auriga.
Haswell and her science team’s results were published in the May 10, 2010 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.