Bizarre planet has a layered atmosphere of vaporized metals

(ORDO NEWS) — The planet, dubbed WASP-189b, is not a new discovery. Scientists already knew that the planet, about 322 light-years away from Earth, is a gas giant that orbits its star at a distance 20 times closer than Earth orbits the Sun, making it a hot world.

And in a new study of an exoplanet, scientists have found the first hint that such a body has a complex atmosphere like our own.

“In the past, astronomers often assumed that the atmospheres of exoplanets exist as a uniform layer,” said Jens Heumakers, an astrophysicist at the Lund Observatory in Sweden. “But our results show that even the atmospheres of intensely irradiated gas giant planets have a complex three-dimensional structure.”

The study is based on the analysis of light from the planet’s star WASP-189 during the passage of the planet in front of it. In particular, scientists used observational data collected in 2019 by the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument at the La Silla Observatory in Chile during three different planetary passages in front of its star.

HARPS cannot directly determine how these chemicals are located in the atmosphere, and scientists have not observed the layering firsthand.

“We believe that strong winds and other processes may have caused these changes,” Bibiana Prynot, lead author of the study and doctoral student at Lund University, said in a statement.

“And since the footprints of different gases have been altered differently, we think that this indicates their existence in different layers – much like the footprints of water vapor and ozone on Earth look differently altered from a distance, since they are mainly in different atmospheric layers.

Among the specific chemicals the team identified, titanium oxide, which the researchers believe can absorb short-wavelength light, like the Earth’s ozone layer, has drawn particular attention.

Several different metals are also present in WASP-189b’s atmosphere, including iron, chromium, magnesium and vanadium, according to the new study.

While we humans don’t normally consider metals to be gaseous given the temperature on WASP-189b, this is not surprising. The planet’s star is especially hot, and the planet itself is so close that, according to previous studies, it takes only 2.7 Earth days to enter orbit.

“We are convinced that to fully understand these and other types of planets – including more Earth-like ones – we need to appreciate the three-dimensional nature of their atmospheres,” Kevin Heng, an astrophysicist at the University of Bern and co-author of the new study, said in a statement. Fortunately, the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope is equipped to carry out this kind of atmospheric research.”

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