It’s exciting that studies of exoplanets – distant planets orbiting other suns – are becoming so much more detailed. Today (December 12, 2016), astronomers at University of Warwick in Coventry, England announced they’ve detected evidence of powerful changing winds sweeping across giant exoplanet HAT-P-7b, a world 40% larger than Jupiter, orbiting a star 50% more massive than our sun, some 1,040 light-years away. They say theirs is the first-ever weather report on a gas giant outside our solar system. And what weather! They report the planet’s clouds could be made of vaporized corundum, the mineral that forms rubies and sapphires. If only we could view these clouds, they said, they might be:
… visually stunning.
And think of the hail! David Armstrong of Warwick’s Astrophysics Group led the research. He said the strong winds moving across HAT-P-7b likely lead to catastrophic storms.
This research was published on December 12, 2016 in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Astronomy.
Armstrong and his colleagues conducted this research using data from NASA’s planet-finding Kepler satellite. They were able to monitor light being reflected from the atmosphere of HAT-P-7b. This exoworld is so close to its star that its dayside is a searing 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,927 degrees C). Armstrong and colleagues identified changes in the light reflected from the planet, and they showed that the brightest area on the planet shifts its position. This, they say is due to changes in cloud cover around this world, specifically an equatorial jet with:
… dramatically variable wind-speeds, at their fastest pushing vast amounts of cloud across the planet.
Armstrong commented in a statement:
HAT-P-7b is a tidally locked planet, with the same side always facing its star. We expect clouds to form on the cold night side of the planet, but they would evaporate quickly on the hot dayside.
These results show that strong winds circle the planet, transporting clouds from the night side to the dayside. The winds change speed dramatically, leading to huge cloud formations building up then dying away.
These researchers expect this research to lead to more studies of this kind, as astrophysicists begin to explore the weather on planets beyond our solar system.
Bottom line: Giant exoplanet HAT-P-7b has clouds made of the mineral that forms rubies and sapphires!
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.