Scientists Create 3-D Exotic Clouds On Exoplanet

First Posted: Oct 30, 2015 11:32 AM EDT

Scientists recently created 3-D exotic clouds on exoplanet GJ1214b (Gliese 1214), in order to examine the atmosphere and possible presence of light on the exoplanet, according to a study at the University of Washington.

"When an exoplanet passes in front of its star, light can be absorbed at some wavelengths by molecules in the atmosphere, which we can analyze by looking at how light passes through the planet's atmosphere," said Benjamin Charnay, postdoctoral researcher from the Department of Astronomy, UW, in a news release. But for this planet, when researchers previously looked with the Hubble Space Telescope, they saw almost no variation with wavelength of light."

In order to examine the atmosphere on an exoplanet's atmosphere, astronomers often evaluate the how the planet gathers or distribute light from the parent star. However, it was different for exoplanet GJ1214b.

A "flat spectrum" revealed that a strange matter in the upper atmosphere blocked light. Thus, Charnay and his team figured they could create a computational model to determine what the atmosphere could be composed of, based on the planet's temperature and composition, using 3D technology.

GJ1214b is between the size of Earth and Neptune, and it is the smallest exoplanet that can be studied using existing technology - its' location is also ideal for studies, according to the researchers.

"It's an important step in characterizing exoplanets. GJ1214b is quite close to Earth, just 42 light years away, and it orbits its star in just 1.6 days," said Charnay.

The investigated the exoplanet's flat spectrum, where they eliminated the presence of water, carbon dioxide, simple hydrogen and methane. They found that high in the atmosphere something was blocking light from reaching further down.

"There could either be high clouds in the atmosphere or an organic haze, like we see on Titan," Charnay said.

The atmospheric temperature was higher than the boiling point of water, and if there are clouds around GJ1214b, then they are likely formed of salt, according to Charnay.

Charnay used UW's Hyak supercomputer to run the three-dimensional cloud model for GJ1214b. Charnay found that GJ1214b can create, sustain and lift salt clouds into the upper atmosphere, where they make up the exoplanet's flat spectrum. The model was also able to predict future climate on the planet.

"Light splits chemicals in the atmosphere, creating more complex organic compounds that make the haze," said Charnay.

In the meantime, Charnay is waiting for the James Webb Space Telescope to launch, in order to find out if it is clouds or haze that give GJ1214b a flat spectrum. Charnay is also planning on creating a similar model to determine what the earth was like before life originated.

"Worlds like Titan and this exoplanet have complex atmospheric chemistry that might be closer to what early Earth's atmosphere was like. We can learn a lot about how planetary atmospheres like ours form by looking at them," said Charnay.

The findings of this study were published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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