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02.21.07

Cracking the Code of Faraway Worlds: An Exoplanet Atmosphere

This infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope called a spectrum tells astronomers that a distant gas planet, a so-called "hot Jupiter" called HD 189733b, might be smothered with high clouds. It is one of the first spectra of an alien world.

A spectrum is created when an instrument called a spectrograph cracks light from an object open into a rainbow of different wavelengths. Patterns or ripples within the spectrum indicate the presence, or absence, of molecules making up the object.

Astronomers using Spitzer's spectrograph were able to obtain infrared spectra for two so-called "transiting" hot-Jupiter planets using the "secondary eclipse" technique. In this method, the spectrograph first collects the combined infrared light from the planet plus its star, then, as the planet is eclipsed by the star, the infrared light of just the star. Subtracting the latter from the former reveals the planet's own rainbow of infrared colors.

Astronomers were perplexed when they first saw the infrared spectrum above. It doesn't look anything like what theorists had predicted. Theorists thought the spectra of hot, Jupiter-like planets like this one would be filled with the signatures of molecules in the planets' atmospheres. But the spectrum doesn't show any molecules, and is instead what astronomers call "flat." For example, theorists thought there'd be a strong signature of water in the form of a big drop in the wavelength range between 7 and 10 microns. The fact that water is not detected may indicate that it is hidden underneath a thick blanket of high, dry clouds. The average brightness of the spectrum is also a bit lower than theoretical predictions, suggesting that very high winds are rapidly moving the terrific heat of the noonday sun from the day side of HD 189733b to the night side.

This spectrum was produced by Dr. Carl Grillmair of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and his colleagues.