Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Clear skies on exo-Neptune

25.09.2014

Smallest exoplanet ever found to have water vapour

Astronomers using data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Kepler Space Telescope have discovered clear skies and steamy water vapour on a planet outside our Solar System. The planet, known as HAT-P-11b, is about the size of Neptune, making it the smallest exoplanet ever on which water vapour has been detected. The results will appear in the online version of the journal Nature on 24 September 2014.


Artist Illustration of planet HAT-P-11b

The discovery is a milestone on the road to eventually finding molecules in the atmospheres of smaller, rocky planets more akin to Earth. Clouds in the atmospheres of planets can block the view of what lies beneath them. The molecular makeup of these lower regions can reveal important information about the composition and history of a planet. Finding clear skies on a Neptune-size planet is a good sign that some smaller planets might also have similarly good visibility.

"When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say 'clear skies' to mean good luck," said Jonathan Fraine of the University of Maryland, USA, lead author of the study. "In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That's lucky for us because it means clouds didn't block our view of water molecules."

HAT-P-11b is a so-called exo-Neptune — a Neptune-sized planet that orbits another star. It is located 120 light-years away in the constellation of Cygnus (The Swan). Unlike Neptune, this planet orbits closer to its star, making one lap roughly every five days. It is a warm world thought to have a rocky core, a mantle of fluid and ice, and a thick gaseous atmosphere. Not much else was known about the composition of the planet, or other exo-Neptunes like it, until now.

Part of the challenge in analysing the atmospheres of planets like this is their size. Larger Jupiter-like planets are easier to observe and researchers have already been able to detect water vapour in the atmospheres of some of these giant planets. Smaller planets are more difficult to probe — and all the smaller ones observed to date have appeared to be cloudy.

The team used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 and a technique called transmission spectroscopy, in which a planet is observed as it crosses in front of its parent star. Starlight filters through the rim of the planet's atmosphere and into the telescope. If molecules like water vapour are present, they absorb some of the starlight, leaving distinct signatures in the light that reaches our telescopes.

"We set out to look at the atmosphere of HAT-P-11b without knowing if its weather would be cloudy or not," said Nikku Madhusudhan, from the University of Cambridge, UK, part of the study team. "By using transmission spectroscopy, we could use Hubble to detect water vapour in the planet. This told us that the planet didn't have thick clouds blocking the view and is a very hopeful sign that we can find and analyse more cloudless, smaller, planets in the future. It is groundbreaking!"

Before the team could celebrate they had to be sure that the water vapour was from the planet and not from cool starspots — "freckles" on the face of stars — on the parent star. Luckily, Kepler had been observing the patch of sky in which HAT-P-11b happens to lie for years. Those visible-light data were combined with targeted infrared Spitzer observations. By comparing the datasets the astronomers could confirm that the starspots were too hot to contain any water vapour, and so the vapour detected must belong to the planet.

The results from all three telescopes demonstrate that HAT-P-11b is blanketed in water vapour, hydrogen gas, and other yet-to-be-identified molecules. So in fact it is not only the smallest planet to have water vapour found in its atmosphere but is also the smallest planet for which molecules of any kind have been directly detected using spectroscopy [1]. Theorists will be drawing up new models to explain the planet's makeup and origins.

Although HAT-P-11b is dubbed as an exo-Neptune it is actually quite unlike any planet in our Solar System. It is thought that exo-Neptunes may have diverse compositions that reflect their formation histories. New findings such as this can help astronomers to piece together a theory for the origin of these distant worlds.

"We are working our way down the line, from hot Jupiters to exo-Neptunes," said Drake Deming, a co-author of the study also from University of Maryland, USA. "We want to expand our knowledge to a diverse range of exoplanets."

The astronomers plan to examine more exo-Neptunes in the future, and hope to apply the same method to smaller super-Earths — massive, rocky cousins to our home world with up to ten times the mass of Earth. Our Solar System does not contain a super-Earth, but other telescopes are finding them around other stars in droves and the NASA/ESA James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018, will search super-Earths for signs of water vapour and other molecules. However, finding signs of oceans and potentially habitable worlds is likely a way off.

This work is important for future studies of super-Earths and even smaller planets. It could allow astronomers to pick out in advance the planets with atmospheres clear enough for molecules to be detected. Once again, astronomers will be crossing their fingers for clear skies.

Notes

[1] Molecular hydrogen has been inferred to exist in many planets, including planets smaller than HAT-P-11b, but no molecule has actually been detected, using spectroscopy, in a planet this small, until now.

Notes for editors

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

The international team of astronomers in this study consists of J. Fraine (University of Maryland, USA; Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile; California Institute of Technology, USA); D. Deming (University of Maryland, USA; NASA Astrobiology Institute, USA); B. Benneke (California Institute of Technology, USA); H. Knutson (California Institute of Technology, USA); A. Jordán (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile); N. Espinoza (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile); N. Madhusudhan (University of Cambridge, UK); A. Wilkins (University of Maryland, USA); K. Todorov (ETH Zürich, Switzerland)

More information

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Links

Contacts

Nikku Madhusudhan
University of Cambridge
United Kingdom
Tel: +1 617 475 5112
Cell: +44 7804 419140
Email: nmadhu@ast.cam.ac.uk

Jonathan Fraine
University of Maryland
USA
Tel: +1-301-405-1469
Email: jfraine@astro.umd.edu

Drake Deming
University of Maryland
USA
Tel: +1-301-405-8053
Email: ddeming@astro.umd.edu

Georgia Bladon
ESA/Hubble, Public Information Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Cell: +44 7816291261
Email: gbladon@partner.eso.org

Georgia Bladon | ESA/Hubble Media Newsletter
Further information:
http://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1420/

Further reports about: Atmosphere ESA HAT-P-11b Hubble NASA Space Telescope Telescope spectroscopy water vapour

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Squeezing light at the nanoscale
18.06.2018 | Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

nachricht The Fraunhofer IAF is a »Landmark in the Land of Ideas«
15.06.2018 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Festkörperphysik IAF

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: AchemAsia 2019 will take place in Shanghai

Moving into its fourth decade, AchemAsia is setting out for new horizons: The International Expo and Innovation Forum for Sustainable Chemical Production will take place from 21-23 May 2019 in Shanghai, China. With an updated event profile, the eleventh edition focusses on topics that are especially relevant for the Chinese process industry, putting a strong emphasis on sustainability and innovation.

Founded in 1989 as a spin-off of ACHEMA to cater to the needs of China’s then developing industry, AchemAsia has since grown into a platform where the latest...

Im Focus: First real-time test of Li-Fi utilization for the industrial Internet of Things

The BMBF-funded OWICELLS project was successfully completed with a final presentation at the BMW plant in Munich. The presentation demonstrated a Li-Fi communication with a mobile robot, while the robot carried out usual production processes (welding, moving and testing parts) in a 5x5m² production cell. The robust, optical wireless transmission is based on spatial diversity; in other words, data is sent and received simultaneously by several LEDs and several photodiodes. The system can transmit data at more than 100 Mbit/s and five milliseconds latency.

Modern production technologies in the automobile industry must become more flexible in order to fulfil individual customer requirements.

Im Focus: Sharp images with flexible fibers

An international team of scientists has discovered a new way to transfer image information through multimodal fibers with almost no distortion - even if the fiber is bent. The results of the study, to which scientist from the Leibniz-Institute of Photonic Technology Jena (Leibniz IPHT) contributed, were published on 6thJune in the highly-cited journal Physical Review Letters.

Endoscopes allow doctors to see into a patient’s body like through a keyhole. Typically, the images are transmitted via a bundle of several hundreds of optical...

Im Focus: Photoexcited graphene puzzle solved

A boost for graphene-based light detectors

Light detection and control lies at the heart of many modern device applications, such as smartphone cameras. Using graphene as a light-sensitive material for...

Im Focus: Water is not the same as water

Water molecules exist in two different forms with almost identical physical properties. For the first time, researchers have succeeded in separating the two forms to show that they can exhibit different chemical reactivities. These results were reported by researchers from the University of Basel and their colleagues in Hamburg in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

From a chemical perspective, water is a molecule in which a single oxygen atom is linked to two hydrogen atoms. It is less well known that water exists in two...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Munich conference on asteroid detection, tracking and defense

13.06.2018 | Event News

2nd International Baltic Earth Conference in Denmark: “The Baltic Sea region in Transition”

08.06.2018 | Event News

ISEKI_Food 2018: Conference with Holistic View of Food Production

05.06.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Novel method for investigating pore geometry in rocks

18.06.2018 | Earth Sciences

Diamond watch components

18.06.2018 | Process Engineering

New type of photosynthesis discovered

18.06.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>