Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has been a busy piece of space equipment, making more than 1.2 million observations, according to NASA. As it barrels around the Earth at 17,000 mph, it snaps photos of various stars, planets and galaxies, among other celestial objects.
Publishing in The Astrophysical Journal, astronomers from the University of Arizona have taken the first measurement of an exoplanet’s rotation with direct imaging. The target planet: 2M1207b, which, at four times the mass of Jupiter, has been dubbed a “super-Jupiter,” and is part of the brown dwarf system 2M1207, which is approximately 170 light-years from Earth.
Thanks to Hubble’s instruments, the astronomers successfully measured the planet’s brightness as it spun. They snapped over 160 images of the planet over a 10-hour period. And due to the planet’s changing brightness, the astronomers were able to verify the presence of a patchy, colorless cloud layer.
First discovered 10 years ago, 2M1207b is around 10 million years old. Its days are less than 11 hours, and the temperature is around 2,600 F. And when it rains, it rains liquid iron and glass. According to University of Arizona researcher Yifan Zhou, it rains glass at higher altitudes, and liquid iron at lower altitudes.
“Understanding the exoplanet’s atmosphere was one of the key goals for us,” said Zhou. “This can help us understand how its clouds form and if they are homogenous or heterogeneous across the planet.”
The astronomers utilized the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to analyze the planet in infrared light.
The astronomers believe that over the next billion years, the planet’s temperatures will cool. As that happens, the clouds will descend to the surface and eventually disappear.
2M1207b is a babe when compared to Jupiter, which is around 4.5 billion years old. Additionally, the brown dwarf it orbits is only about five to seven time more massive than it, whereas the sun is around 1,000 times more massive than Jupiter.
Zhou noted that this means the processes that led to the planets’ creations were distinct and different.
“The planets orbiting our sun formed inside a circumstellar disk through accretion. But the super-Jupiter and its companion may have formed throughout the gravitational collapse of a pair of separate disks,” according to HubbleSite.
The astronomers behind the study began their data collection in 2014. Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is expected to be able to map the clouds of exoplanets. Webb will launch in 2018.
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