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Experts Watch Climate of Exoplanet Light-years Away

Oct 10, 2014 11:01 AM EDT

Most experts are too worried about the state of Earth's climate to be looking to the stars, but now a team of astronomers have used NASA's Hubble Telescope to help reveal what kind of temperatures and precipitation are felt on an exoplanet 260 light-years away.

And according to a pair of recently published studies, the exoplanet WASP-43b is a "world of extremes."

The researchers determined that the planet is best characterized by the stark differences between day and night. Intensely hot winds averaging 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,649 Celsius) rule the day, and a brief cooling period when it's "only" about 1,000 degrees (538 C) makes the night.

"These measurements have opened the door for a new kinds of ways to compare the properties of different types of planets," study leader Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago said in a statement.

He and his colleagues believe that their work will pave the way for new studies of "hot exoplanets" like WASP-43b, where these details can help experts better understand atmospheric dynamics and how giant planets like Jupiter are formed.

Despite the fact that the exoplanet is too far away to be photographed, dips in light in its parent star allowed astronomers to learn specific details of the planet, such as its size and density.

The initial discovery of WASP-43b back in 2011 revealed that the planet is a hot ball of what is likely hydrogen gas, and is about the same size as Jupiter with twice the density. The planet is so close to its orange dwarf host star that it completes an orbit in just 19 hours and is gravitationally locked - keeping one hemisphere facing the star, just as our moon keeps one face toward Earth at all times.

With these new observations, experts managed to analyze three full rotations of the exoplanet, using advanced spectronomy techniques to measure temperature and water in the surfaceless planet's atmosphere.

"The planet is so hot that all the water in its atmosphere is vaporized, rather than condensed into icy clouds like on Jupiter," explained Laura Kreidberg of the University of Chicago.

"Water is thought to play an important role in the formation of giant planets, since comet-like bodies bombard young planets, delivering most of the water and other molecules that we can observe," added Jonathan Fortney at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The results are presented in two new papers, one published in the journal Science Express on Sept. 9, and the other published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on Sept. 12.

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