VLT Detects First Superstorm on Exoplanet
The results appear this week in the journal Nature.
“HD209458b is definitely not a place for the faint-hearted. By studying the poisonous carbon monoxide gas with great accuracy we found evidence for a super wind, blowing at a speed of 5,000 to 10,000 km per hour‚” says Ignas Snellen, who led the team of astronomers.
HD209458b is an exoplanet of about 60% the mass of Jupiter orbiting a solar-like star located 150 light-years from Earth towards the constellation of Pegasus (the Winged Horse). Circling at a distance of only one twentieth the Sun-Earth distance, the planet is heated intensely by its parent star, and has a surface temperature of about 1,000 degrees Celsius on the hot side. But as the planet always has the same side to its star, one side is very hot, while the other is much cooler. “On Earth, big temperature differences inevitably lead to fierce winds, and as our new measurements reveal, the situation is no different on HD209458b,” says team member Simon Albrecht.
The astronomers achieved several other firsts. They directly measured the velocity of the exoplanet as it orbits its home star. “In general, the mass of an exoplanet is determined by measuring the wobble of the star and assuming a mass for the star, according to theory. Here, we have been able to measure the motion of the planet as well, and thus determine both the mass of the star and of the planet,” says co-author Ernst de Mooij.
Also for the first time, the astronomers measured how much carbon is present in the atmosphere of this planet. “It seems that H209458b is actually as carbon-rich as Jupiter and Saturn. This could indicate that it was formed in the same way,” says Snellen. “In the future, astronomers may be able to use this type of observation to study the atmospheres of Earth-like planets, to determine whether life also exists elsewhere in the Universe.”