Wasp39B – An Exoplanet with Water, but at 1400 Degrees

There is so much that can be discerned by dissecting light from faraway places.  Right now in our world, we have been on a search of exoplanets in places far, far away because at some point, we here on Earth are going to run out of water.  When that happens, we’ll discover what war is really all about — we can live approximately 3 weeks without food (not that anyone I know wants to take THAT challenge), but experts say that we can live about 100 hours without water, living inside, in controlled conditions.  Way less, for example, if you’re living in the desert.

This month, NASA scientists working with some older data from Hubble along with JPL’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope have discovered a new “hot Saturn” planet that has a whole lot of water onboard

Now what’s crazy about this new exoplanet discovery that maybe has all kinds of water vapor in its atmosphere is that it is indeed a planet with a mass close to that of Saturn, but way, way hotter — around 1400 degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact.  For reference, Mercury is 800 degrees Fahrenheit.  The reason they call these planets “hot Saturns” is because they are obviously WAY sexier than Saturn…  I kid of course, but the real deal is that they are so freaking hot because they are way closer to their “sun” type star and have a quicker orbit around that sun.  This planet, called Wasp39B, is on a 4-day orbit around its Sun.  Four days.  It’s also what we call “tidally locked,” meaning that only one side of it faces the Sun.

Remember:  Mercury is only 800 degrees Fahrenheit.  This place, Wasp39B is 1400 degrees.  AND HAS WATER!

We actually discovered this back in 2011 with Hubble, but like everything else we discover, it must wait in line while science and politics figure out how to give NASA enough budget to explore things before they go completely away.  Using some older data from Hubble, the location was explored, and a great paper was written on the discovery.  See that link below.

Scientists basically used an analysis of the light passing through the exoplanet’s atmosphere to dissect what the composition of that atmosphere was, and in doing so, BOOM!  Water vapor.  Now how this 1400 degree planet has water vapor in it is a mystery, kind of like how a human can survive after chugging down 6 burritos and a large Coke, but I have seen this exact thing go down and that person did not have a heart attack.

(It was me who ate the six burritos, but that was a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away)…  from the Hubble Site:

“WASP-39b shows exoplanets are full of surprises and can have very different compositions than those of our Solar System,” says co-author David Sing from the University of Exeter, UK.

The analysis of the atmospheric composition and the current position of the planet indicate that WASP-39b most likely underwent an interesting inward migration, making an epic journey across its planetary system. “Exoplanets are showing us that planet formation is more complicated and more confusing than we thought it was. And that’s fantastic!”, adds Wakeford.

Having made its incredible inward journey WASP-39b is now eight times closer to its parent star, WASP-39, than Mercury is to the Sun and it takes only four days to complete an orbit. The planet is also tidally locked, meaning it always shows the same side to its star. Wakeford and her team measured the temperature of WASP-39b to be a scorching 750 degrees Celsius. Although only one side of the planet faces its parent star, powerful winds transport heat from the bright side around the planet, keeping the dark side almost as hot.

“Hopefully this diversity we see in exoplanets will help us figure out all the different ways a planet can form and evolve,” explains David Sing.

NASA scientists wrote a great paper on this discovery, it’s a total nerdgasm and I hope you read it:

aww yeah, GET SOME SCIENCE!

Here’s a direct PDF link to the paper on Wasp39B

Using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescopes as well as data gathered by other telescopes in space and on the ground astronomers have analysed the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-39b. It is the most complete spectrum of an exoplanet’s atmosphere possible with present-day technology. By dissecting starlight filtering through the planet’s atmosphere into its component colours, the team found clear evidence for water vapour. Although the researchers predicted they would see water, they were surprised by how much water they found — three times as much as Saturn has. This suggests that the planet formed farther out from the star, where it was bombarded by icy material.

This is a massive discovery.  I don’t think we’re gonna be skinny-dipping any time soon on Wasp39B (it’s also 700 light years away from us, or 6,622,511,330,806,560 kilometers), but a big thumbs up to the NASA team for making such an amazing discovery.  Keep it up, heroes!

From NASA’s press release on Wasp39B:

Although the researchers predicted they’d see water, they were surprised by how much water they found in this “hot Saturn.” Because WASP-39b has so much more water than our famously ringed neighbor, it must have formed differently. The amount of water suggests that the planet actually developed far away from the star, where it was bombarded by a lot of icy material. WASP-39b likely had an interesting evolutionary history as it migrated in, taking an epic journey across its planetary system and perhaps obliterating planetary objects in its path.

“We need to look outward so we can understand our own solar system,” explained lead investigator Hannah Wakeford of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and the University of Exeter in Devon, United Kingdom. “But exoplanets are showing us that planet formation is more complicated and more confusing than we thought it was. And that’s fantastic!”

Wakeford and her team were able to analyze the atmospheric components of this exoplanet, which is similar in mass to Saturn but profoundly different in many other ways. By dissecting starlight filtering through the planet’s atmosphere into its component colors, the team found clear evidence for water. This water is detected as vapor in the atmosphere.

Using Hubble and Spitzer, the team has captured the most complete spectrum of an exoplanet’s atmosphere possible with present-day technology. “This spectrum is thus far the most beautiful example we have of what a clear exoplanet atmosphere looks like,” said Wakeford.

“WASP-39b shows exoplanets can have much different compositions than those of our solar system,” said co-author David Sing of the University of Exeter in Devon, United Kingdom. “Hopefully this diversity we see in exoplanets will give us clues in figuring out all the different ways a planet can form and evolve.”

Located in the constellation Virgo, WASP-39b whips around a quiet, Sun-like star, called WASP-39, once every four days. The exoplanet is currently positioned more than 20 times closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun. It is tidally locked, meaning it always shows the same face to its star.

Its day-side temperature is a scorching 1,430 degrees Fahrenheit (776.7 degrees Celsius). Powerful winds transport heat from the day-side around the planet, keeping the permanent night-side almost as hot. Although it is called a “hot Saturn,” WASP-39b is not known to have rings. Instead, is has a puffy atmosphere that is free of high-altitude clouds, allowing Wakeford and her team to peer down into its depths.

Looking ahead, Wakeford hopes to use the James Webb Space Telescope — scheduled to launch in 2019 — to get an even more complete spectrum of the exoplanet. Webb will be able to give information about the planet’s atmospheric carbon, which absorbs light at longer, infrared wavelengths than Hubble can see. By understanding the amount of carbon and oxygen in the atmosphere, scientists can learn even more about where and how this planet formed.

Places to go visit:

European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope site

NASA’s Spitzer Telescope site

Learn about Hot Jupiters and Hot Saturns

The Hubble Site