First Ever Weather Report From an Exoplanet: Highs of 2240 Degrees

By Eliza Strickland | January 29, 2009 8:51 am

exoplanet weatherFor the first time, researchers have watched weather conditions shift on a planet outside our solar system, and say the temperature spikes are out of this world. Normally, the planet is a toasty 980 degrees [Fahrenheit] or so. But in the few hours it whips around its sun the planet gets zapped with mega-heat, pushing the thermometer closer to 2,240 degrees…. When it comes closest to its star, it becomes one giant “brewing storm” [AP].

The gas giant, known as HD 80606b, lies about 190 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, and has an extremely elliptical orbit. When it’s closest to its sun, it is barely more than 300,000 miles away – not much more distant than our cold moon is from us. But when the planet is farthest away from its sun and coolest, it’s nearly 70 million miles away. That would be like some object flying somewhere far out between the orbits of Earth and Venus [San Francisco Chronicle]. One complete orbit around its sun takes 111 days.

Researchers say the exoplanet may top the list of the least hospitable places known to man, and say it’s impossible that any life as we know it could survive there. “This is indeed an oddball planet, where the temperature range of the season changes from hellish to super-hellish,” said … astronomer Alan Boss. “This place makes Venus look like a nice place to live and that is saying something” [AP].

For the study, published in Nature [subscription required], the astronomers used the Spitzer Space Telescope to observe the exoplanet for a 30-hour period. Lead researcher Gregory Laughlin and his team lucked out by discovering that the planet passes behind its star in an eclipse just before the moment of its closest approach. The eclipse allowed the astronomers to separate the planet’s heat from the star’s heat, and measure precisely how hot the planet gets as it cozies up to its star. By feeding the temperature measurements into a computer simulation, the researchers were able to model the planet’s weather and reveal that global storms and shockwaves erupt on HD 80606b as it dives in near to its star [Wired News].

What the researchers have seen of HD 80606b’s orbit indicates that there’s a 15 percent chance that the planet will pass in front of its sun (as seen from Earth) on February 14th. That would provide fascinating new information about the overheated world. During a transit, the planet blocks some of its host star’s light, allowing astronomers to take a more direct measurement of the object’s size. In addition, some of the starlight gets filtered through the planet’s atmosphere. Astronomers can then read signals in the light that indicate the types of gases present [National Geographic News].

Related Content:
Bad Astronomy: Weather sizzles on a planet that kisses its star
80beats: Hubble Reports First Ever Signs of Carbon Dioxide on an Exoplanet
80beats: Four Exoplanets Sighted, One Close Enough to Dream of “Sending Spacecraft There”
80beats: Pictured: The First Known Planet Orbiting a Sun-Like Star?
DISCOVER: How Long Until We Find a Second Earth?

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Langton

  • George

    a) Astronomers Discover Earth-Like Planet Outside Solar System… Scientists from the European Southern Observatory working in Chile have found a new planet outside our solar system that is more like Earth than any other known planet… Like Earth, the new planet “Gliese 581c” orbits its sun in “the habitable zone.” The estimated surface temperature is between minus 3 and 40 degrees celsius — neither too cold nor too hot for life as we know it. This means there could be liquid water on the planet’s surface. Full story:
    b) The researchers at Kobe University in western Japan said calculations using computer simulations led them to conclude it was only a matter of time before the mysterious “Planet X” was found:

  • nick

    eLiza, thanks for using the term “life as we know it” and not just “life” – it really makes me cringe when I hear hotshot scientists going on about how this and that place is inhospitable to life. Which is what they thought of sulphuric vents on the sea floor. Life as we didn’t know it sure showed them. The universe is far too rich for life to only exist “as we know it.” We may not have proof, but there is a several hundred million year anecdote that says life will find ways to survive through some pretty hairy situations.

    There’s no reason for life to not exists in cRRRRazy extreme places – we just don’t know the precise mechanism yet. We do know that microbes exist in freezing places by producing natural antifreeze, no reason they couldn’t have found a way to produce diamond-hard carbon nanotube shells to withstand unimaginable pressures and temperatures. We know that nanotubes can be made using a carbon source and certain kinds of epoxy…. which is basically what trees are made out of (lignan and cellulose – epoxy and carbon fiber, nature’s composite).

  • Eliza Strickland

    @ Nick — I used that phrase very deliberately, thinking of previous comments on this blog that have reminded me that we shouldn’t be too quick to write off the possibility of life, even in the damnest places.

    It’s a very good thing to be reminded of — to keep an open mind. Where would science be without that?

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