December 31, 2013
New Hubble Data Offer More Details About Cloudy Alien World
[ Watch the Video: New Secrets Revealed About Cloudy Exoplanet ]
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe OnlineScientists using data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered new cloudy details about an alien world.
The team said that GJ1214b is a super-Earth class planet because its mass is intermediate between Earth and Neptune. The group of scientists analyzed the characteristics of the exoplanet and published their results in the journal Nature.
Previous research showed that the atmosphere on GJ1214b could consist entirely of water vapor or some type of heavy molecule. These past studies also found that the alien world could contain high-altitude clouds that prevent the observation of the planet’s surface. However, the latest study provides even more details of GJ1214b after using 96 hours of Hubble Space Telescope observations over 11 months.
GJ1214b is located just 40 light-years from Earth towards the constellation Ophiuchus. The exoplanet is the most easily observed super-Earth for scientists because of its proximity to our solar system and the small size of its star. The alien world orbits its parent star every 38 hours, giving scientists plenty of opportunity to study its atmosphere.
The researchers were able to use Hubble to precisely measure the spectrum of the planet in near-infrared light. They found clear evidence of clouds blanketing the planet. These clouds hide information about the composition and behavior of the lower atmosphere and surface.
"We really pushed the limits of what is possible with Hubble to make this measurement,"stated Laura Kreidberg, a third-year graduate student at the University of Chicago and first author of the new paper. "This advance lays the foundation for characterizing other Earths with similar techniques."
Jacob Bean, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and the project's principal investigator, said Hubble really helped the team analyze this exoplanet.
"I think it's very exciting that we can use a telescope like Hubble that was never designed with this in mind, do these kinds of observations with such exquisite precision, and really nail down some property of a small planet orbiting a distant star," Bean said in a statement.
Hubble observations from 2012 and 2013 allowed the team to rule out a cloud-free atmosphere made of water vapor, methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide. Instead, the team says this planet contains high-altitude clouds with an unknown composition. However, models predict that the clouds are potentially made out of potassium chloride or zinc sulfide.
"You would expect very different kinds of clouds to form than you would expect, say, on Earth," Kreidberg said.