New Technique Reveals a Planet with Liquid Rock in Its Atmosphere

First Posted: Mar 04, 2015 06:31 AM EST

Scientists may have gotten a better glimpse of weather on other planets. They've created a new technique that analyzes data from NASA's Kepler space observatory to determine the types of clouds on planets that orbit other stars.

The Kepler spacecraft is designed to search for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. It was pointed at a fixed patch of space and constantly monitored the brightness of 145,000 stars. When orbiting exoplanets pass in front of their stars, the star's light dims, which allows researchers to detect its presence.

The new technique involves studying the variations in the amount of light coming from these star systems as a planet transits. In order to see if the data could be used to actually determine the composition of clouds, the researchers studied the light signal from Kepler-7b. They used models of temperature and pressure of the planet's atmosphere to determine how different types of clouds would form within it.

"We then used these clouds models to determine how light would reflect off the atmosphere of the planet [for each type of cloud] and tried to match these possibilities to the actual observations from the Kepler mission itself," said Matthew Webber, one of the researchers, in a news release. "So we ran a large set of models, to see which models fit best statistically to the observations."

In the end, the researchers matched the Kepler data to a type of cloud made out of vaporized silicates and magnesium. This new method could be huge when it comes for hunting for life on other planets.

"Their models indicate that the clouds on this planet are most likely made from liquid rock," said Heather Knutson, an assistant professor of planetary research at Caltech who was not involved in the study. "This may sound exotic, but this planet is a roasting hot gas-giant planet orbiting very close to its host star, and we should expect that it might look quite different than our own Jupiter."

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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