The Hot Saturn Exoplanet

Oct 02, 2009
The flux from the star HD149026 and its Saturn-like planet versus time in 4.3 minute intervals, as seen by the Infrared Array Camera as the planet passes in front of the star ("transits"). Credit: Knutson et al. 2009

( -- Of the roughly 350 known exoplanets (i.e., extrasolar planets), the one orbiting the star HD149026 is unique.

It has a mass comparable to that of Saturn but is much smaller in size, indicating that it is made up of a denser material such as ice or rocks. It is therefore quite unlike the large class of "hot Jupiters," giant exoplanets that are primarily composed of and (and that are hot because they orbit close to their parent ).

The comparatively unusual composition of this exoplanet may reflect the chemistry of the original stellar nebula, or perhaps something in the way it formed, or a combination of factors. Whatever the reasons, astronomers suspect that the atmosphere of this planet could also be comparatively unusual. As scientists explore the incredible, new field of exoplanet astronomy, these and other basic questions help to illuminate how our own earth was formed and how it is influenced by the sun.

A team of seven astronomers led by CfA scientists Heather Knutson and David Charbonneau used the IRAC camera on the (the IRAC team is led by CfA astronomer Giovanni Fazio) to measure the daytime and nighttime temperatures of the Saturn-sized exoplanet around HD149026. It happens that this is one of a few that transit its star, which is to say that its directly crosses the line-of-sight of our view of the star.

As the planet passes behind the star, beginning its so-called secondary eclipse, the daylight side of the planet becomes visible for a short time. Using the IRAC camera, the scientists were able to measure the daytime brightness by watching the brightness of the planet change during this phase, with an amazing precision of about 0.04%. They calculate the daytime temperature to be about 1440 kelvin, a value significantly smaller than previous estimates; they also find the average nighttime temperature for the first time, and report that it is about 900 kelvin.

The temperature difference between the day and night side is largely a result of the exoplanet's atmosphere. The scientists argue that the atmosphere shows evidence for some combination of atmospheric circulation, water absorption, and reflectivity. Furthermore, they are able to estimate the energy budget of the planet, and find that, like other that reflect some of the incident starlight (often due to clouds), it appears to emit less flux than it receives from its parent star, although this conclusion is tentative pending observations at other wavelengths. The new paper is a dramatic illustration of the power of the new generation of astronomical instruments whose effectiveness comes not only from their being sensitive, but also from their ability to make extremely precise measurements.

Provided by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (news : web)

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1.5 / 5 (4) Oct 03, 2009
They usually attach so called 'artistic renditions' This paper illustrates the power of new class of instruments.
1.7 / 5 (3) Oct 04, 2009
It's peculiar that this is both a rare kind of large rocky exoplanet (1 in 350) and that it's also rare in that it's one of the 'few' exoplanets that are in a direct line-of-sight with its star.
I don't know how many 'few' means but if you take it to mean 3 or so that gives a chance of 1 in 100. Taking together that gives a probability of 1 in 350,000 of this being down to chance alone. You've just got to suspect an observational selection effect (over and above the usual selection effect for big planets).

Just how solid is the evidence that the planets found so far are gas giants? Can they be sure of the radius of an object from non-line-of-sight observations? Maybe some of them also have large rocky cores? After all, it's what you might expect with them orbiting so close to their star.
1.8 / 5 (4) Oct 06, 2009
Sniffy, although this is indeed the only planet like this known out of 350 exoplanets, only 62 planets are known to transit. So it could easily be that some of the other 200 non-transiting planets are similar to HD 149026 b, but since we cannot determine their radii, it's impossible to know at this time.

The evidence that these planets are gaseous is a simple density measurement which is made possible through measurements of their mass and radius. Atmospheres have been detected and chemically identified for both HD 189733 b and HD 209458 b.

Three planets, Gliese 436 b, HAT-P-11 b, and CoRoT-7 b, are known to not be Jovian planets. Gliese 436 b and HAT-P-11 b are Neptunes, and CoRoT-7 b is a super-Earth.

No, the radius of a planet cannot yet be determined if the planet does not transit.

And yes, the new-born field of extrasolar planetology has many observational biases, many of which are limitations of technology. Gargantuan planets tend to stick out over little ones.

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