Astronomers Measure the Atmosphere on a Planet Hundreds of Light-Years Away

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 field of extrasolar planet research has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years. To date, astronomers have relied on space-based and ground-based telescopes to confirm the existence of 4,566 exoplanets in 3,385 systems, with another 7,913 candidates awaiting confirmation. More importantly, in the past few years, the focus of exoplanet studies has slowly shifted from the process of discovery towards characterization.

In particular, astronomers are making great strides when it comes to the characterization of exoplanet atmospheres. Using the Gemini South Telescope (GST) in Chile, an international team led by Arizona State University (ASU) was able to characterize the atmosphere of a “hot Jupiter” located 340 light-years away. This makes them the first team to directly measure the chemical composition of a distant exoplanet’s atmosphere, a significant milestone in the hunt for habitable planets beyond our Solar System.

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