Weather forecasters on exoplanet GJ 1214b would have an easy job. Today’s forecast: cloudy. Tomorrow: overcast. Extended outlook: more clouds.
That’s the implication of a study led by researchers in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago who have definitively characterized the atmosphere of a super-Earth class planet orbiting another star for the first time.
The scrutinized planet, which is known as GJ 1214b, is classified as a super-Earth type planet because its mass is intermediate between those of Earth and Neptune. Recent searches for planets around other stars (“exoplanets”) have shown that super-Earths like GJ 1214b are among the most common type of planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Because no such planets exist in our Solar System, the physical nature of super-Earths is largely unknown.
It’s pretty amazing that the Hubble telescope, which it should be remembered is 1980s technology, is being used to detect atmospheric features of a planet 40 light years away. Seeing exoplanets, planets around other stars, is profoundly difficult since they’re relative specks of reflected starlight which, from our perspective, is so close to their parent star that they might as well be part of it.
When I think about this, I get pretty excited about what we’ll learn when the James Webb telescope finally goes online. It’s capabilities will far surpass Hubble’s, enabling us to see exoplanets much better, to see the early universe much closer to the big bang, and who knows what other marvels that are beyond the resolution of Hubble.
- Cloudy Weather On Alien Super-Earth Revealed By Hubble Space Telescope (b4inmain.wordpress.com)
- Hubble reveals cloudy weather on alien world (scienceblog.com)
- The Real Space Oddities: Super-Earths and Jumbo Neptunes (science.time.com)
- Exoplanet weather forecast calls for clouds (futurity.org)