Astronomers Discover the Second-Lightest “Cotton Candy” Exoplanet to Date.

A NASA illustration of the giant planet WASP-193b and its star. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA)

The hunt for extrasolar planets has revealed some truly interesting candidates, not the least of which are planets known as “Hot Jupiters.” This refers to a particular class of gas giants comparable in size to Jupiter but which orbit very closely to their suns. Strangely, there are some gas giants out there that have very low densities, raising questions about their formation and evolution. This is certainly true of the Kepler 51 system, which contains no less than three “super puff” planets similar in size to Jupiter but is about one hundred times less dense.

These planets also go by the moniker “cotton candy” giants because their density is comparable to this staple confection. In a recent study, an international team of astronomers spotted another massive planet, WASP-193b, a fluffy gas giant orbiting a Sun-like star 1,232 light-years away. While this planet is roughly one and a half times the size of Jupiter, it is only about 14% as massive. This makes WASP-193b the second-lightest exoplanet observed to date. Studying this and other “cotton candy” exoplanets could provide valuable insight into how these mysterious giants form.

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You Can't Know the True Size of an Exoplanet Without Knowing its Star's Magnetic Field

Artist's impression of a "hot Jupiter" orbiting close to a Sun-like star. Credit: NASA

In 2011, astronomers with the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) consortium detected a gas giant orbiting very close to a Sun-like (G-type) star about 700 light-years away. This planet is known as WASP-39b (aka. “Bocaprins”), one of many “hot Jupiters” discovered in recent decades that orbits its star at a distance of less than 5% the distance between the Earth and the Sun (0.05 AU). In 2022, shortly after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) it became the first exoplanet to have carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide detected in its atmosphere.

Alas, researchers have not constrained all of WASP-39b’s crucial details (particularly its size) based on the planet’s light curves, as observed by Webb. which is holding up more precise data analyses. In a new study led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), an international team has shown a way to overcome this obstacle. They argue that considering a parent star’s magnetic field, the true size of an exoplanet in orbit can be determined. These findings are likely to significantly impact the rapidly expanding field of exoplanet study and characterization.

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