Mit dem Spitzer-Weltraum-Teleskop ist es gelungen Spektren von Planeten anderer Sterne zu gewinnen, mit einem überraschendem Ergbnis: Die jupiterähnlichen Riesenplaneten haben staubige, trockene Atmosphären

 Science News: Erste Spektren von Exo-Planeten untersucht

Künstlerische Darstellung eines jupiterähnlichen Exoplaneten


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The ground-breaking observations were made with Spitzer's spectrograph, which pries apart infrared light into its basic wavelengths, revealing the "fingerprints" of molecules imprinted inside. Spitzer studied two planets, HD 209458b and HD 189733b, both of which were found, surprisingly, to have no water in the tops of their atmospheres. The results suggest that the hot planets are socked in with dry, high clouds, which are obscuring water that lies underneath. In addition, HD209458b showed hints of silicates, suggesting that the high clouds on that planet contain very fine sand-like particles.


Capturing the spectra from the two hot-Jupiter planets was no easy feat. The planets cannot be distinguished from their stars and instead appear to telescopes as single blurs of light. One way to get around this is through what is known as the secondary eclipse technique. In this method, changes in the total light from a so-called transiting planet system are measured as a planet is eclipsed by its star, vanishing from our Earthly point of view. The dip in observed light can then be attributed to the planet alone.


This technique, first used by Spitzer in 2005 to directly detect the light from an exoplanet, currently only works at infrared wavelengths, where the differences in brightness between the planet and star are less, and the planet's light is easier to pick out. For example, if the experiment had been done in visible light, the total light from the system would appear to be unchanged, even as the planet disappeared from view.


To capture spectra of the planets, Spitzer observed their secondary eclipses with its spectrograph. It took a spectrum of a star together with its planet, then, as the planet disappeared from view, a spectrum of just the star. By subtracting the spectrum of the star from the spectrum of the star and planet together, astronomers were able to determine the spectrum of the planet itself.


Neither of the parent stars for HD 209458b or HD 189733b can be seen with the naked eye. HD 209458b is located about 153 light-years away in the constellation Pegasus, while HD 189733b is about 62 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula. Both planets zip around their stars in very tight orbits; HD 209458b circles once every 3.5 days, while HD 189733b orbits once every 2.2 days.


Of the approximately 200 known exoplanets, there are 12 besides HD 209458b and HD 189733b whose orbits are inclined in such a way that, from our point of view, they pass in front of their stars. At least three of these transiting exoplanets are bright enough to follow in the footsteps of HD 209458b and HD 189733 and reveal their infrared spectra to Spitzer. Astronomers hope to use Spitzer's spectrograph in the future to study HD 209458b and HD 189733b again in much greater detail, and to examine some of the other candidates for the first time.





This infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope - called a spectrum - tells astronomers that a distant gas planet, a so-called "hot Jupiter" might be smothered with high clouds. It is one of the first spectra of an alien world.


A spectrum is created when an instrument called a spectrograph spreads light from an object apart into a rainbow of different wavelengths. Patterns or ripples within the spectrum indicate the presence, or absence, of molecules making up the object.


Astronomers using Spitzer's spectrograph were able to obtain infrared spectra for two so-called "transiting" hot-Jupiter planets using the "secondary eclipse" technique. In this method, the spectrograph first collects the combined infrared light from the planet plus its star, then, as the planet is eclipsed by the star, the infrared light of just the star. Subtracting the latter from the former reveals the planet's own rainbow of infrared colors.


When astronomers first saw the infrared spectrum above, they were shocked. It doesn't look anything like what theorists had predicted. Theorists though the spectra for hot, Jupiter-like planets like this one would be filled with the signatures of molecules in the planets' atmospheres. But the spectrum doesn't show any molecules. It is what astronomers call "flat." For example, theorists thought there'd be signatures of water in the wavelength ranges of 8 to 9 microns. The fact that water is not seen there might indicate that the water is hidden under a thick blanket of high, dry clouds.


This spectrum was produced by Dr. Mark R. Swain of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., using a complex set of mathematical tools. It was derived using two different methods, both of which led to the same result. The data were taken on July 6 and 13, 2005, by Dr. Jeremy Richardson of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and his team using Spitzer's infrared spectrograph.



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