Astronomers discover a pitch black planet that reflects nearly zero sunlight

16 September, 2017, 21:54 | Author: Oscar Goodwin
  • WASP-12b

Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have discovered that the well-studied hot Jupiter WASP-12b reflects nearly no light, making it appear essentially pitch black.

Only the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is powerful enough to carry out such enormous measurements.

Taylor Bell, lead author of the paper and a Master's student in astronomy at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, said the results were surprising.

Like all Hot Jupiters, WASP-12b is similar in mass to Jupiter (1.35 to 1.43 Jupiter masses) and orbits very close to its star.

The worldwide experts found that the exoplanet's albedo was 0.064 at most, making it almost as dark as the asphalt. "The low albedo shows we still have a lot to learn about WASP-12b and other similar exoplanets".

Since its discovery in 2008, several telescopes have studied WASP-12b, including Hubble, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. These are quite important, since they usually reflect the light of the star back into space. That short distance means that the planet's surface could top 2600 degrees Celsius, which may mean its atmosphere is actually responsible for absorbing so much of the light that hits the planet.

WASP-12b is about twice as large as Jupiter and completes an orbit around its star in a little more than a day.

The "goth" planet and its star are located some 1,400 light years away from Earth, so it's not exactly feasible to go check it out for ourselves.

"There are other hot Jupiters that have been found to be remarkably black, but they are much cooler than WASP-12b", Bell said. [3]. The new data indicate that the WASP-12b atmosphere is composed of atomic hydrogen and helium. This is in contrast to the Bond albedo, which describes the total amount of energy reflected across all wavelengths and always falls in the range of 0 to 1.

WASP-12b was observed by the scientists because they were very keen to know the reason behind it being so dark as well as hot.

Because of its orbit, temperatures on the day side of the planet are estimated to reach as high as 2811 K (2538 °C; 4600 °F).

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of worldwide cooperation between ESA and NASA. WASP-12b's temperature is so hot that it could break hydrogen molecule into atomic hydrogen resulting in an atmosphere equivalent to that of a low-mass star. This leads to the low albedo of the exoplanet.

Therefore, clouds probably can not form to reflect light back into space.

WASP-12b is just the second exoplanet to have its albedo measured spectrally in this manner.

Back in 2013, scientists working with the HST detected traces of water vapor in the atmosphere (and possible traces of clouds as well) while studying the day/night boundary. Scientists revealed that the WASP-did not show any color preference and looked like a red hot glowing planet because of excess heat.

"The fact that the first two exoplanets with measured spectral albedo exhibit significant differences demonstrates the importance of these types of spectral observations and highlights the great diversity among hot Jupiters", Bell concludes.

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