NASA researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California are studying how planets and solar systems might form.  They’re doing it by cooking alien atmospheres in an oven in Pasadena.  Yes.  That is happening. 

Scientists are particularly focused on a class of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) called Hot Jupiters, which are gas giants that orbit extremely close to their parent stars.  And, I mean very close.  Hot Jupiters orbit their stars in less than 10 days.  Earth, as we know, takes 365 days.  Mercury orbits our sun in 88 days.  Hot Jupiters are close, and you might have guessed… hot.  Their proximity to their home stars means that Hot Jupiters “range from 1,000 to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (530 to 2,800 degrees Celsius)” or hotter.  That’s according to

Being bigger and giving off more light than other classes of planets, Earth scientists have been able to learn more about the atmospheres that might be present in these gas giants.  So, researchers at JPL put hydrogen and carbon monoxide (two common molecules in the universe and early solar systems) in an oven and heated them to 620 and 2,240 degrees Fahrenheit (330 and 1,230 Celsius).  No big deal.  They also exposed the heated gases to ultraviolet radiation that a very close parent star might throw at a planet.  

The radiation was the thing.  It gave scientists some surprising results.  It accelerated the production of carbon dioxide and water in the “atmosphere”, and it developed aerosols (solids suspended in the gases) that had not been present in previous experiments.  The aerosols account for what is making the Hot Jupiter atmospheres so very opaque.  All of it speaks to how to study exoplanets and what scientists should be looking for when they do. 

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Mark Swain, coauthor of the study published in Astrophysical Journal said, “These new results are immediately useful for interpreting what we see in hot Jupiter atmospheres,” and, “We’ve assumed that temperature dominates the chemistry in these atmospheres, but this shows we need to look at how radiation plays a role.”

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Lead author, Benjamin Fleury of JPL said, “Going forward, we want to study the properties of these aerosols. We want to better understand how they form, how they absorb light and how they respond to changes in the environment. All that information can help astronomers understand what they’re seeing when they observe these planets.”

We’ll keep our eye on NASA and JPL to see what else they’re cookin’.  

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