Spotting a Faint Escaping Atmosphere – Sky & Telescope

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

Low-density planets wrestle to carry on to their atmospheres after they’re blasted with high- radiation from a close-by host star. New observations have a view of 1 such escaping environment utilizing a robust tracer: helium.

Environment on the

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

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

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

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

Letting Helium Lead

Why is helium useful? When a low-density planet is pelted with excessive ultraviolet radiation, this could produce a inhabitants of helium atoms within the planet’s higher environment 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 function on the near-infrared wavelength of 1,083 nm.

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

The transit light curve and residuals for HAT-P-18b
Folded information 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 p.c.
Tailored from Paragas et al. 2021

That is exactly the detection made in 2018 for the gasoline large orbiting WASP-107, and it’s now what a group 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 Large

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

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 group efficiently detected extra helium absorption that allowed them to measure the planet’s escaping higher environment.

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 one in all solely a handful of planets whose prolonged environment has been measured utilizing helium, and it’s the faintest but. This research subsequently demonstrates the effectiveness of utilizing mid-sized, ground-based telescopes to survey planets that lie shut in round faint stars, offering a invaluable alternative to be taught extra in regards to the evolution of this inhabitants.


“Metastable Helium an Prolonged Environment for the Gasoline Large 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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