Astronomers, using data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and computational modeling, have detected significant cyclones and active weather patterns on a distant, Jupiter-sized planet situated 880 light-years away.
The planet, WASP-121 b, is unsuitable for sustaining life. Nonetheless, this finding represents a critical initial step in analyzing distant planetary weather systems and potentially identifying exoplanets with stable, habitable climates in the future.
Observations of turbulent atmospheres on neighboring planets in our solar system over recent decades reveal constant fluctuations akin to Earth’s weather. Scientists posit that this variability extends to planets orbiting other stars, necessitating thorough observations and computational analysis to quantify such changes.
An international team of astronomers reanalyzed Hubble’s observations of WASP-121 b taken in 2016, 2018, and 2019, revealing the planet’s dynamic atmosphere evolving over time. Advanced modeling techniques suggested these fluctuations were attributed to the exoplanet’s atmospheric weather patterns.
These analyses indicated stark differences in WASP-121 b’s atmosphere between observations. Notably, evidence suggested recurring massive weather systems, storms, and cyclones influenced by temperature disparities between the star-facing and dark sides of the exoplanet. Additionally, researchers identified a discrepancy between the planet’s hottest region and its closest point to the star, alongside variations in the exoplanet’s atmospheric chemical composition measured through spectroscopy.
Jack Skinner, a co-leader of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, emphasized the significance of their detailed exoplanet atmosphere simulations. Skinner highlighted the crucial advancement in understanding the evolving weather patterns on these planets by combining observational data with atmospheric simulations.
Quentin Changeat, a principal investigator from the team, stressed the importance of studying exoplanetary weather for comprehending the complexities of exoplanet atmospheres, particularly in the pursuit of habitable exoplanets.
WASP-121 b’s proximity to its parent star causes it to be tidally locked, with one hemisphere continuously facing the star, similar to the Moon’s relationship with Earth. Daytime temperatures soar to approximately 3,450 degrees Fahrenheit (2,150 degrees Kelvin) on the star-facing side.
Utilizing four sets of Hubble archival observations of WASP-121 b, researchers extracted insights into the exoplanet’s changing chemistry, temperature, and cloud formations over different periods.
Hubble’s capabilities in enabling comprehensive scientific research through its Cycle 31 observations, prioritizing imaging and spectroscopy studies like those employed for WASP-121 b, reflect its unique contributions.
The Hubble Space Telescope, a collaboration between NASA and ESA, is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. STScI conducts Hubble and Webb science operations, operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.