Hubble uncovers a ‘heavy metal’ exoplanet


HOW can a planet be “hotter than hot?” The answer is when heavy metals are detected escaping from the planet’s atmosphere, instead of condensing into clouds.
Observations by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reveal magnesium and iron gas streaming from the strange world outside our solar system known as WASP-121b. The observations represent the first time that so-called “heavy metals” — elements heavier than hydrogen and helium — have been spotted escaping from a hot Jupiter, a large, gaseous exoplanet very close to its star.

Normally, hot Jupiter-sized planets are still cool enough inside to condense heavier elements such as magnesium and iron into clouds.

But that’s not the case with WASP-121b, which is orbiting so dangerously close to its star that its upper atmosphere reaches a blazing 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature in WASP-121b’s upper atmosphere is about 10 times greater than that of any known planetary atmosphere. The WASP-121 system resides about 900 light-years from Earth.

“Heavy metals have been seen in other hot Jupiters before, but only in the lower atmosphere,” explained lead researcher David Sing of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “So you don’t know if they are escaping or not. With WASP-121b, we see magnesium and iron gas so far away from the planet that they’re not gravitationally bound.”

Ultraviolet light from the host star, which is brighter and hotter than the Sun, heats the upper atmosphere and helps lead to its escape. In addition, the escaping magnesium and iron gas may contribute to the temperature spike, Sing said.