Using the Hubble Space Telescope, for the first time, astronomers have observed the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet evaporating off into space. Much of this planet may eventually disappear, leaving only a dense core. The planet is a type of extrasolar planet known as a hot Jupiter. These giant, gaseous planets orbit their stars very closely, drawn to them like moths to a flame.
The scorched planet called HD 209458b orbits ‘only’ 7 million kilometres from its yellow Sun-like star. By comparison, Jupiter, the closest gas giant in our Solar System, orbits 780 million kilometres from our Sun. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space telescope observations reveal a hot and puffed-up evaporating hydrogen atmosphere surrounding the planet. This huge envelope of hydrogen resembles a comet with a tail trailing behind the planet. The planet circles the parent star in a tight 3.5-day orbit. Earth also has an extended atmosphere of escaping hydrogen gas, but the loss rate is much lower.
A mainly European team led by Alfred Vidal-Madjar (Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, CNRS, France) is reporting this discovery in the March 13 NATURE Magazine. "We were astonished to see that the hydrogen atmosphere of this planet extends over 200 000 kilometres," says Vidal-Madjar.
Franco Bonacina | alfa
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