From Centauri Dreams: “Cold Trap in a Hot Jupiter’s Atmosphere”

Centauri Dreams

November 2, 2017
Paul Gilster

The other day I looked at how we can use transit spectroscopy to study the atmospheres of exoplanets. Consider this a matter of eclipses, the first occurring when the planet moves in front of its star as seen from Earth.

Planet transit. NASA/Ames

We can measure the size of the planet and also see light from the star as it moves through the planetary atmosphere, giving us information about its composition. The secondary eclipse, when the planet disappears behind the star, is also quite useful. Here, we can study the atmosphere in terms of its thermal variations.

In my recent post, I used a diagram from Sara Seager to show primary and secondary eclipse in relation to a host star. The image below, by Josh Winn, is useful because it drills down into the specifics.

Image: A comparison between transits and secondary eclipses (also sometimes called occultations). In a planetary transit, the planet crosses in front of the star (see lower dip) blocking a fraction of the star’s brightness. In a secondary eclipse, the planet crosses behind the star, blocking the planet’s brightness (see dip in the middle). The latter dip in brightness is fainter due to the faintness of the planet. Credit: Josh Winn. See A New Discovery of a Secondary Eclipse for more background as it applies to the HAT-P-11 system.

Secondary eclipses have been significant in the study of Kepler-13Ab, a world where conditions could not be more different on the planet’s nightside vs. its dayside. A ‘hot Jupiter’ some 1730 light years from Earth, this is a world close enough to its parent star that it is tidally locked. Researchers led by Thomas Beatty (Pennsylvania State) have used the Hubble Space Telescope to determine that that the dayside here can surpass a blistering 3000 Kelvin.

By contrast, the nightside of Kepler-13Ab, turned forever away from the star, is a place where titanium oxide snow can fall. The process is intriguing: Any titanium oxide gas on the star-facing side is carried by strong winds around to the nightside, where the gas condenses into clouds and eventually falls as snow. A gravitational tug six times greater than Jupiter’s pulls the titanium oxide into the lower atmosphere, forming a ‘cold trap’ — an atmospheric layer that is colder than the layers both below and above it. Ascending gases drop back into the trap.

Science paper:
Evidence for Atmospheric Cold-trap Processes in the Noninverted Emission Spectrum of Kepler-13Ab Using HST/WFC3

Centauri Dreams

See the full article here .

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Tracking Research into Deep Space Exploration

Alpha Centauri and other nearby stars seem impossible destinations not just for manned missions but even for robotic probes like Cassini or Galileo. Nonetheless, serious work on propulsion, communications, long-life electronics and spacecraft autonomy continues at NASA, ESA and many other venues, some in academia, some in private industry. The goal of reaching the stars is a distant one and the work remains low-key, but fascinating ideas continue to emerge. This site will track current research. I’ll also throw in the occasional musing about the literary and cultural implications of interstellar flight. Ultimately, the challenge may be as much philosophical as technological: to reassert the value of the long haul in a time of jittery short-term thinking.