Today's exoplanet forecast: Windy with ruby and sapphire clouds

Today's exoplanet forecast: Windy with ruby and sapphire clouds
An artist's rendering of gas giant HAT-p-7b.
An artist's rendering of gas giant HAT-p-7b.
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An artist's rendering of gas giant HAT-p-7b.
An artist's rendering of gas giant HAT-p-7b.

Scientists have spotted weather systems on a gas giant planet beyond our solar system for the first time ever, and it's definitely out of this world. It's entirely possibly that wild winds are blowing ruby and sapphire clouds on the blazing "hot Jupiter" planet HAT-P-7b over 1,000 light years away.

Researchers used NASA's Kepler space telescope to study the light reflected by the planet 16 times larger than Earth and watch how its atmosphere changed over a period of time.

"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," explains the University of Warwick's Dr. David Armstrong, who led the research. "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."

The team noticed that the brightest point on the planet would shift its position, likely due to variable winds and violent storm systems. Because the planet is so much hotter than ours, the scientists had to speculate about what elements could possibly form the "morning" clouds observed at dayside temperatures of 1,700°C, hot enough to melt iron.

Two possibilities are corundum and perovskite. Corundum is the mineral that forms rubies and sapphires on Earth and it would probably make for some colorful clouds being blown around HAT-P-7b.

"Perhaps clouds of ruby are moving around this planet, appearing and disappearing in a stunning display," Armstrong suggests.

Perovskite, interestingly, is also better known in its solid crystal forms here on our planet, where it's currently being used in next generation solar cell technology.

Armstrong is hopeful that upcoming space telescopes like NASA's James Webb Space Telescope and ESA's PLATO will allow us to take a closer look at the weather on more exoplanets, including more Earth-like worlds that could even be habitable.

The research on HAT-P-7b was published online in Nature Astronomy.

Sources: University of Warwick, The Conversation

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