In a world nearly 640 light years from Earth, liquid iron falls from the sky like rain. And scientists are now reporting that the extreme atmosphere may be hotter than previously thought.
WASP-76b is a flaming gas giant exoplanet discovered in 2016. It is nicknamed “super-hot Jupiter” because it is close to the star on which it orbits.
As a “tidal locked” planet, one side of WASP-76b always faces the sun – average temperatures therefore vary from 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit on its permanent night half to 4,400 degrees on its permanent day half. To put that in perspective, the hottest planet in our solar system, Venus, has an average temperature of 880 degrees, according to NASA. The average temperature of the Earth is 61 degrees.
Amid the scorching climate, WASP-76b is famous for its iron rain – resulting from iron vaporizing on the day side, then condensing on the night side to rain the planet. And, if that weather wasn’t extreme enough, researchers have detected ionized calcium in the atmosphere.
In a September 28 report published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters, an international team of scientists suggests the discovery could mean WASP-76b’s climate is even more intense than expected.
“It’s already a pretty extreme and exotic type of atmosphere. A unique world in our own solar system,” said report co-author Ray Jayawardhana, Harold Tanner Dean of Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences. and professor of astronomy. UNITED STATES TODAY. “Our detection of ionized calcium suggests that the upper layers of the atmosphere may be even hotter than previously known. And / or it could also include large-scale winds … In a way, the conditions in the upper atmosphere of a planet like this may not be that different from that of a red dwarf star. “
In addition to finding ionized calcium in the atmosphere of WASP-76b, the team also confirmed the presence of previously detected sodium. Their research is part of a project led by Cornell University called ExoGemS, or Exoplanets with Gemini Spectroscopy Survey.
The results published in last month’s report were the first the team detected with observations from the Gemini North Telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. According to Jayawardhana, the team plans to observe dozens of exoplanets, with a range of masses and temperatures, using northern Gemini in the coming years. Similar work will be done with the James Webb Space Telescope, which is expected to launch in December.
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“A pretty amazing thing is the fact that these planets are literally hundreds of light years away (but) here we are using a ground telescope on Earth,” Jayawardhana said. “We are able to remote sensing hundreds of ideas and actually measuring – not just theorizing, not just speculating – but actually measuring constituents and conditions on alien worlds.”
Jayawardhana added that exponentially more breakthroughs could be to come, especially when thinking about how far research has come since the discovery of the first exoplanets in the 1990s. He hopes today’s observations are a preview what the next generation of telescopes, on Earth and in space, will explore – for a wide range of planets, not just super-hot Jupiters.
“The next few years will continue to be an incredibly exciting time for those of us interested in worlds beyond our own solar system… (It) will likely not only expand our understanding of the cosmos, but bring us also some surprises which we did not anticipate. “