Astronomers Detect Sunscreen Snow Falling On A Hot Exoplanet

Posted: Oct 29 2017, 12:52pm CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News

 
Astronomers Detect Sunscreen Snow Falling on a Hot Exoplanet
An illustration of hot Jupiter Kepler-13Ab. Credits: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon

For the first time, astronomers have observed a precipitation process, called a "cold trap," on an exoplanet

Astronomers have discovered an extremely hot exoplanet that snows sunscreen. The exoplanet dubbed Kepler-13Ab's is six times more massive than Jupiter and is located 1,730 light years away from the Earth.

The intense gravity of the exoplanet removes titanium oxide from its upper atmosphere. Then, it precipitates as snow and penetrates into the lower layers of the atmosphere. This, however, only happens on the nighttime side of planet. The exoplanet is tidally locked to its host star, which means its one side or daytime side always faces its parent object while maintaining a scorching temperature of nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The observations offer more insight into the complexity of atmospheric conditions on different planets that lie outside our solar system.

“In many ways, the atmospheric studies we're doing on hot Jupiters now are testbeds for how we're going to do atmospheric studies on terrestrial, Earth-like planets," said lead researcher Thomas Beatty of Pennsylvania State University. “Hot Jupiters provide us with the best views of what climates on other worlds are like. Understanding the atmospheres on these planets and how they work, which is not understood in detail, will help us when we study these smaller planets that are harder to see and have more complicated features in their atmospheres.”

The exoplanet was discovered with the help of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Though astronomers were not specifically looking for the signatures of titanium oxide (the active ingredient in sunscreen) on the exoplanet, they were surprised to observe cooler atmosphere at higher altitudes. Normally, titanium oxide in the atmospheres of hot Jupiters absorbs light and releases it as heat, which makes atmosphere increasingly warmer at higher altitudes. The Hubble observations mark the very first detection of precipitation process, called a "cold trap," on an exoplanet.

"Presumably, this precipitation process is happening on most of the observed hot Jupiters, but those gas giants all have lower surface gravities than Kepler-13Ab," Beatty explained. "The titanium oxide snow doesn't fall far enough in those atmospheres, and then it gets swept back to the hotter dayside, revaporizes, and returns to a gaseous state."

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