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Spotting a Faint Escaping Atmosphere – Sky & Telescope

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An Artist's impression of WASP-107b
Artist’s illustration of WASP-107b, the primary planet for which scientists found helium escaping from its ambiance.
ESA / Hubble / NASA / M. Kornmesser

Low-density planets battle to carry on to their atmospheres once they’re blasted with high-energy radiation from a close-by host star. New observations have caught a view of 1 such escaping ambiance utilizing a strong tracer: helium.

Ambiance on the Run

When a planet orbits near its star, incoming ultraviolet radiation can warmth and puff up the planet’s ambiance, extending it thus far that the gravitational pull of the planet can now not maintain it in. The mass loss that outcomes from this course of dramatically shapes the inhabitants of short-period exoplanets — so understanding atmospheric escape is essential to our understanding of planetary evolution.

The spectrum of a transiting exoplanet's atmosphere
As a star’s mild filters via a planet’s ambiance on its technique to Earth, the ambiance absorbs sure wavelengths relying on its composition.
European Southern Observatory

However measuring a planet’s escaping ambiance is difficult! At excessive altitudes, the ambiance is skinny and low-pressure, which implies that a lot of the spectral signatures of this escaping mass — produced throughout transits when the planetary ambiance absorbs background stellar mild — are faint.

In 2018, nevertheless, a brand new discovery supplied some hope: the primary detection of helium in an exoplanet ambiance.

Letting Helium Lead

Why is helium useful? When a low-density planet is pelted with excessive ultraviolet radiation, this may produce a inhabitants of helium atoms within the planet’s higher ambiance that exist in a long-lived excited state. This metastable helium absorbs photons even on the low pressures that accompany excessive altitudes, making a outstanding absorption characteristic on the near-infrared wavelength of 1,083 nm.

By trying to find this absorption line — which, because it falls within the infrared, may be noticed even via the Earth’s ambiance utilizing ground-based telescopes — we are able to probe the prolonged ambiance of close-in transiting planets, measuring how a lot mass the planets are dropping via atmospheric escape.

The transit light curve and residuals for HAT-P-18b
Folded knowledge and best-fit fashions displaying the transit mild curve and residuals for HAT-P-18b at 1,083 nm (prime) and the corresponding broad-band mild curve from TESS (backside). The transit depth within the helium bandpass exceeds that within the TESS bandpass by roughly half a %.
Tailored from Paragas et al. 2021

That is exactly the detection made in 2018 for the gasoline big orbiting WASP-107, and it’s now what a workforce of scientists led by Wesleyan College undergraduate Kimberly Paragas has succeeded in doing for the same — however fainter — system HAT-P-18.

Loss from a Big

HAT-P-18 is a Ok-type star situated about 540 light-years away. The star hosts a gas-giant planet, HAT-P-18b, on a close-in, transiting orbit of simply 5.5 days. Although the planet is roughly the dimensions of Jupiter, it comprises solely 20% of Jupiter’s mass — making it very low-density and a very good goal to seek for an escaping ambiance.

Paragas and collaborators noticed two transits of HAT-P-18b with the 200” Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory in California, utilizing an ultra-narrow band filter centered on the 1,083-nm line. In these observations, the workforce efficiently detected extra helium absorption that allowed them to measure the planet’s escaping higher ambiance.

By making use of wind fashions to those observations, the authors present that HAT-P-18b is dropping lower than 2% of its mass per billion years.

HAT-P-18b is certainly one of solely a handful of planets whose prolonged ambiance has been measured utilizing helium, and it’s the faintest but. This examine due to this fact demonstrates the effectiveness of utilizing mid-sized, ground-based telescopes to survey planets that lie shut in round faint stars, offering a precious alternative to be taught extra concerning the evolution of this inhabitants.


“Metastable Helium Reveals an Prolonged Ambiance for the Fuel Big HAT-P-18b,” Kimberly Paragas et al 2021 ApJL 909 L10. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/abe706

This publish initially appeared on AAS Nova, which options analysis highlights from the journals of the American Astronomical Society.


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