Hubble reveals egg-shaped exoplanet so hot it's venting vaporized iron into space

What is an exoplanet

What is an exoplanet

Sing and his colleagues made the observations using the Imaging Spectrograph instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope.

The study was published on August 1 in The Astronomical Journal.

"This planet is a prototype for ultra-hot Jupiters". The answer is when heavy metals are detected escaping from the planet's atmosphere, instead of condensing into clouds. The intense heat from its nearby star has made WASP-121b puff up like a marshmallow. These weird atmospheres mostly contain lighter-weight gases hydrogen and helium and they break apart as the planet moves in close proximity to its star. The temperature in WASP-121b's upper atmosphere is about 10 times greater than that of any known planetary atmosphere. It's located 900 light-years from Earth, so we'll have to be content with telescope observations of the oddball exoplanet.

"The easiest way to understand it is like the ocean tides on Earth from the Moon", David Sing, the lead author of the new study and an astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told Gizmodo. "Although they're rare, they really stand out once you've found them".

We'll never be able to see WASP-121b up close in concert, though. "The planet is being evaporated by its host star to the point that we can see metal atoms escaping the upper atmosphere where they can interact with the planet's magnetic field". "These metals will make the atmosphere more opaque in the ultraviolet, which could be contributing to the heating of the upper atmosphere", Sing said.

This hot Jupiter is so close to its host star that gravitational forces are squeezing it into a football-like shape.

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Because the star and its planet are so close to each other, the exolanet's round shape has become more like an ovoid football as it faces the star's gravity.

Astronomers knew WASP-121b was an extremely hot planet when they started investigating it using the Hubble Space Telescope.

"The heavy metals are escaping partly because the planet is so big and puffy that its gravity is relatively weak". This is the first observation of a hot Jupiter releasing heavy metal gases into space. The new research is the first to demonstrate this phenomenon, in which iron and magnesium from the lower atmosphere flows up into the upper atmosphere, where it stays in gaseous form owing to the high temperatures. The planet and its escaping gases are too far away to see directly, even at their scorching temperatures. The distant planet's atmosphere is so hot that metal is vaporizing and escaping the planet's gravitational pull.

"This is a planet being actively stripped of its atmosphere", Sing added. The incredible heat is so intense that it's led elements like magnesium and iron to be totally vaporized, streaming into space as the star blasts the planet with huge force.

This exoplanet is also a ideal target for NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to search in infrared light for water and carbon dioxide, which can be detected at longer, redder wavelengths.

Hot Jupiter-sized planets are typically still cool enough inside to condense iron and magnesium into clouds, however, WASP-121b is a different case. These atmospheres consist mostly of the primordial, lighter-weight gases hydrogen and helium, the most plentiful elements in the universe. This atmosphere dissipates as a planet moves closer to its star. That's roughly 10 times hotter than that of any other known planet. "But in the case of WASP-121b, the hydrogen and helium gas is outflowing, nearly like a river, and is dragging these metals with them. It's a very efficient mechanism for mass loss".

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