Weather On Alien ‘Super-Earth’ Planet Is Cloudy And HOT, According To Observations Made Using Hubble Telescope
Researchers have published the first ever weather forecast for a super-Earth planet. The exoplanet GJ 1214b, 40 light years away from earth, has been a fascination for astronomers since 2009, when it was discovered. This exoplanet is classified as super-Earth type because its mass is somewhere between Earth and Neptune. Planets such as GJ 1214b are pretty common in the Milky Way galaxy. It is known that GJ 1214b has a thick, sticky, water-rich atmosphere, has a diameter 2.6 times the Earth's, and weighs seven times as much as our planet. And now we know that today's weather there is, well, cloudy and hot — 450 degrees Fahrenheit hot to be exact.
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The current study will be published in the January 2nd issue of Nature. It is based on 96 hours of Hubble telescopic observation over 11 months, and was written by a team of astronomers led by Laura Kreidberg and Jacob Bean of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. This work, according to the researchers, is important in our search for a potentially habitable planet beyond our solar system. "This advance lays the foundation for characterizing other Earths with similar techniques," Kriedberg, a third-year graduate student and first author of the new paper, said in a press release.
This was the largest Hubble program ever devoted to a single exoplanet study. According to Bean, an assistant professor and the project's principal investigator, a telescope like Hubble was never designed to do the kind of precision observation they did in this project, which helped them identify some of the properties of this planet. The Hubble telescope helped the researchers precisely measure the spectrum of GJ 1214b in near-infrared light. The team subsequently came up with definitive evidence of high clouds blanketing the planet, which may hold clues to the composition of the surface of the planet and its lower atmosphere.
To this point scientists had two hypotheses on the atmospheric conditions of the planet. The first proposal was that the atmosphere was composed entirely of water vapor or some other heavy molecule. The second speculated that the presence of high-altitude clouds that prevented the observation underneath. The new data confirms the second hypothesis: that there are in fact high-altitude clouds in the atmosphere of the planet, even as the precise composition of the clouds is not yet known.
The observations have enabled the scientists to create accurate models of super-Earth atmosphere, in which the clouds are composed of potassium chloride or zinc sulfide at the scorching temperatures of 450 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that the composition of clouds on GJ 1214b are likely to be drastically different from the composition of clouds on Earth, we are familiar with, according to Kreidberg.
NASA's next major and fairly sophisticated 6.5m James Webb Space telescope, scheduled to go online later this decade, according to Kreidberg, could helps us access more information about exoplanets like GJ 1214b. "The new capabilities of this telescope will allow us to peer through the clouds on planets like GJ 1214b. But more than that, it may open the door to studies of Earth-like planets around nearby stars," she said.
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