September 14, 2017

Exoplanet WASP-12b

Exoplanet WASP-12b

Astronomers have discovered that the well-studied exoplanet WASP-12b reflects almost no light, making it appear essentially pitch black. This discovery sheds new light on the atmospheric composition of the planet and also refutes previous hypotheses about WASP-12b’s atmosphere. The results are also in stark contrast to observations of another similarly sized exoplanet.

Using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, an international team led by astronomers at McGill University, Canada, and the University of Exeter, UK, have measured how much light the exoplanet WASP-12b reflects — its albedo — in order to learn more about the composition of its atmosphere.

The results were surprising, explains lead author Taylor Bell, a Master’s student in astronomy at McGill University who is affiliated with the Institute for Research on Exoplanets: “The measured albedo of WASP-12b is 0.064 at most. This is an extremely low value, making the planet darker than fresh asphalt!” This makes WASP-12b two times less reflective than our Moon which has an albedo of 0.12. Bell adds: “The low albedo shows we still have a lot to learn about WASP-12b and other similar exoplanets.”

WASP-12b orbits the Sun-like star WASP-12A, about 1400 light-years away, and since its discovery in 2008 it has become one of the best studied exoplanets. With a radius almost twice that of Jupiter and a year of just over one Earth day, WASP-12b is categorised as a hot Jupiter. Because it is so close to its parent star, the gravitational pull of the star has stretched WASP-12b into an egg shape and raised the surface temperature of its daylight side to 2600 degrees Celsius.

The high temperature is also the most likely explanation for WASP-12b’s low albedo. “There are other hot Jupiters that have been found to be remarkably black, but they are much cooler than WASP-12b. For those planets, it is suggested that things like clouds and alkali metals are the reason for the absorption of light, but those don’t work for WASP-12b because it is so incredibly hot," explains Bell.

The daylight side of WASP-12b is so hot that clouds cannot form and alkali metals are ionised. It is even hot enough to break up hydrogen molecules into atomic hydrogen which causes the atmosphere to act more like the atmosphere of a low-mass star than like a planetary atmosphere. This leads to the low albedo of the exoplanet.

To measure the albedo of WASP-12b the scientists observed the exoplanet in October 2016 during an eclipse, when the planet was near full phase and passed behind its host star for a time. This is the best method to determine the albedo of an exoplanet, as it involves directly measuring the amount of light being reflected. However, this technique requires a precision ten times greater than traditional transit observations. Using Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph the scientists were able to measure the albedo of WASP-12b at several different wavelengths.

“After we measured the albedo we compared it to spectral models of previously suggested atmospheric models of WASP-12b”, explains Nikolay Nikolov (University of Exeter, UK), co-author of the study. “We found that the data match neither of the two currently proposed models.” The new data indicate that the WASP-12b atmosphere is composed of atomic hydrogen and helium.

WASP-12b is only the second planet to have spectrally resolved albedo measurements, the first being HD 189733b, another hot Jupiter. The data gathered by Bell and his team allowed them to determine whether the planet reflects more light towards the blue or the red end of the spectrum. While the results for HD 189733b suggest that the exoplanet has a deep blue colour, WASP-12b, on the other hand, is not reflecting light at any wavelength. WASP-12b does, however, emit light because of its high temperature, giving it a red hue similar to a hot glowing metal.

“The fact that the first two exoplanets with measured spectral albedo exhibit significant differences demonstrates the importance of these types of spectral observations and highlights the great diversity among hot Jupiters,” concludes Bell.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1714/

Spiral Galaxy NGC 6384

Spiral Galaxy NGC 6384

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced this finely detailed image of the beautiful spiral galaxy NGC 6384. This galaxy lies in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent Bearer), not far from the centre of the Milky Way on the sky. The positioning of NGC 6384 means that we have to peer at it past many dazzling foreground Milky Way stars that are scattered across this image.

In 1971, one member of NGC 6384 stood out against these bright foreground stars when one of its stars exploded as a supernova. This was a Type Ia supernova, which occurs when a compact star that has ceased fusion in its core, called a white dwarf, increases its mass beyond a critical limit by gobbling up matter from a companion star. A runaway nuclear explosion then makes the star suddenly as bright as a whole galaxy.

While many stars have already come to the ends of their lives in NGC 6384, in the centre, star formation is being fuelled by the galaxy’s bar structure; astronomers think such galactic bars funnel gas inwards, where it accumulates to form new stars.

This picture was created from images take with the Wide Field Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. An image taken through a blue filter (F435W, coloured blue) was combined with an image taken through a near-infrared filter (F814W, coloured red). The total exposure times were 1050 s through each filter and the field of view is about 3 x 1.5 arcminutes.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1108a/

Star-Forming Region NGC 6729

Star-Forming Region NGC 6729

This image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope gives a close-up view of the dramatic effects new-born stars have on the gas and dust from which they formed. Although the stars themselves are not visible, material they have ejected is colliding with the surrounding gas and dust clouds and creating a surreal landscape of glowing arcs, blobs and streaks.

The star-forming region NGC 6729 is part of one of the closest stellar nurseries to the Earth and hence one of the best studied. This new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope gives a close-up view of a section of this strange and fascinating region. The data were selected from the ESO archive by Sergey Stepanenko as part of the Hidden Treasures competition. Sergey’s picture of NGC 6729 was ranked third in the competition.

Stars form deep within molecular clouds and the earliest stages of their development cannot be seen in visible-light telescopes because of obscuration by dust. In this image there are very young stars at the upper left of the picture. Although they cannot be seen directly, the havoc that they have wreaked on their surroundings dominates the picture. High-speed jets of material that travel away from the baby stars at velocities as high as one million kilometres per hour are slamming into the surrounding gas and creating shock waves. These shocks cause the gas to shine and create the strangely coloured glowing arcs and blobs known as Herbig–Haro objects.

In this view the Herbig–Haro objects form two lines marking out the probable directions of ejected material. One stretches from the upper left to the lower centre, ending in the bright, circular group of glowing blobs and arcs at the lower centre. The other starts near the left upper edge of the picture and extends towards the centre right. The peculiar scimitar-shaped bright feature at the upper left is probably mostly due to starlight being reflected from dust and is not a Herbig–Haro object.

This enhanced-colour picture was created from images taken using the FORS1 instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Images were taken through two different filters that isolate the light coming from glowing hydrogen (shown as orange) and glowing ionised sulphur (shown as blue). The different colours in different parts of this violent star formation region reflect different conditions — for example where ionised sulphur is glowing brightly (blue features) the velocities of the colliding material are relatively low — and help astronomers to unravel what is going on in this dramatic scene.

Image Credit: ESO
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1109/