NASA Finds a Large Amount of Water in an Exoplanet’s Atmosphere

Much like detectives who study fingerprints to identify the culprit, scientists used NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes to find the “fingerprints” of water in the atmosphere of a hot, bloated, Saturn-mass exoplanet some 700 light-years away. And, they found a lot of water. In fact, the planet, known as WASP-39b, has three times as much water as Saturn does.

Though no planet like this resides in our solar system, WASP-39b can provide new insights into how and where planets form around a star, say researchers. This exoplanet is so unique, it underscores the fact that the more astronomers learn about the complexity of other worlds, the more there is to learn about their origins. This latest observation is a significant step toward characterizing these worlds.

Although the researchers predicted they’d see water, they were surprised by how much water they found in this “hot Saturn.” Because WASP-39b has so much more water than our famously ringed neighbor, it must have formed differently. The amount of water suggests that the planet actually developed far away from the star, where it was bombarded by a lot of icy material. WASP-39b likely had an interesting evolutionary history as it migrated in, taking an epic journey across its planetary system and perhaps obliterating planetary objects in its path.

“We need to look outward so we can understand our own solar system,” explained lead investigator Hannah Wakeford of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and the University of Exeter in Devon, United Kingdom. “But exoplanets are showing us that planet formation is more complicated and more confusing than we thought it was. And that’s fantastic!”

Wakeford and her team were able to analyze the atmospheric components of this exoplanet, which is similar in mass to Saturn but profoundly different in many other ways. By dissecting starlight filtering through the planet’s atmosphere into its component colors, the team found clear evidence for water. This water is detected as vapor in the atmosphere.

Using Hubble and Spitzer, the team has captured the most complete spectrum of an exoplanet’s atmosphere possible with present-day technology. “This spectrum is thus far the most beautiful example we have of what a clear exoplanet atmosphere looks like,” said Wakeford.

“WASP-39b shows exoplanets can have much different compositions than those of our solar system,” said co-author David Sing of the University of Exeter. “Hopefully, this diversity we see in exoplanets will give us clues in figuring out all the different ways a planet can form and evolve.”

Located in the constellation Virgo, WASP-39b whips around a quiet, Sun-like star, called WASP-39, once every four days. The exoplanet is currently positioned more than 20 times closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun. It is tidally locked, meaning it always shows the same face to its star.

Its day-side temperature is a scorching 1,430 degrees Fahrenheit (776.7 degrees Celsius). Powerful winds transport heat from the dayside around the planet, keeping the permanent nightside almost as hot. Although it is called a “hot Saturn,” WASP-39b is not known to have rings. Instead, is has a puffy atmosphere that is free of high-altitude clouds, allowing Wakeford and her team to peer down into its depths.

Looking ahead, Wakeford hopes to use NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope – scheduled to launch in 2019 – to get an even more complete spectrum of the exoplanet. Webb will be able to give information about the planet’s atmospheric carbon, which absorbs light at longer infrared wavelengths than Hubble can see. By understanding the amount of carbon and oxygen in the atmosphere, scientists can learn even more about where and how this planet formed.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at IPAC at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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Bursting with starbirth

This oddly-shaped galactic spectacle is bursting with brand new stars. The pink fireworks in this image taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope are regions of intense star formation, triggered by a cosmic-scale collision. The huge galaxy in this image, NGC 4490, has a smaller galaxy in its gravitational grip and is feeling the strain.

Compared to the other fundamental forces in the Universe, gravity is fairly weak. Despite this, gravity has an influence over huge distances and is the driving force behind the motions of the most massive objects in the cosmos. The scattered and warped appearance of the galaxy in this image, NGC 4490, is a prime example of the results of gravity’s unrelenting tug.

Over millions of years, the mutual gravitational attraction between NGC 4490 and its smaller neighbour, NGC 4485, has dragged the two galaxies closer. Eventually, they collided in a swirling crush of stars, gas, and dust. In this image, this most intense period is already over and the two galaxies have moved through each other, untangled themselves, and are speeding apart again. But gravity’s pull is relentless; the galaxies are likely to collide again within a few billion years.

Together NGC 4490 and NGC 4485 form the system Arp 269, which is featured in the Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies. They are located 24 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Canes Venatici (The Hunting Dogs). The extreme tidal forces of their interaction have determined the shapes and properties of the two galaxies. Once a barred spiral galaxy, similar to the Milky Way, NGC 4490’s outlying regions have been stretched out, resulting in its nickname of the Cocoon Galaxy. Virtually no trace of its past spiral structure can be seen from our perspective, although its companion galaxy NGC 4485 — not pictured here — still clings on to its spiral arms.

This cosmic collision has created rippling patches of higher density gas and dust within both galaxies. The conditions there are ripe for star formation; the brilliant pink pockets of light seen here are dense clouds of ionised hydrogen, glowing as they are irradiated with ultraviolet light from nearby young, hot stars. This spectacular burst of new activity has led to NGC 4490’s classification as a starburst galaxy.

Star formation is also evident in the thin thread that connects the two galaxies: a bridge of stars created by the ancient crash, stretching over the 24 000 light-years that currently separate the fated pair. But where there is life, there is also death. Several supernovae have also been spotted in NGC 4490 over the past few decades, including SN 1982F and SN 2008ax.