Space News Update: December 2017

Rhiannon Williams 2017-12-09

This time spacefans we’re looking more closely at some of my favourite exoplanets, an unusual black hole and have you ever wondered what the Solar system sounds like? Now you can find out!


As we get better at looking at the atmospheres of exoplanets, the more surprises we find! Wasp 18-b is, we know, a hot Jupiter that orbits very close to its star. New observations by the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have found that it has a stratosphere devoid of water and is made up of mainly carbon monoxide, that stuff you don’t want smothering you in your sleep! Having an stratosphere acts as a ‘sunscreen’ absorbing UV light. While here on Earth it’s ozone that does the job, other planets utilize titanium oxide. So these findings point to the planet having formed in a way very different to other giant planets we know of.

“The composition of WASP-18b defies all expectations,” said Kyle Sheppard of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, lead author of the paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. “We don’t know of any other extrasolar planet where carbon monoxide so completely dominates the upper atmosphere.”

Using spectroscopy, we can look using the near infrared part of the spectrum to find out the components of a planet’s atmosphere.

A NASA-led team of scientists determined that WASP-18b, a “hot Jupiter” located 325 light-years from Earth, has a stratosphere that’s loaded with carbon monoxide, or CO, but has no signs of water. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

“The only consistent explanation for the data is an overabundance of carbon monoxide and very little water vapor in the atmosphere of WASP-18b, in addition to the presence of a stratosphere,” said Nikku Madhusudhan, a co-author of the study from the University of Cambridge. “This rare combination of factors opens a new window into our understanding of physicochemical processes in exoplanetary atmospheres.”

In the case of Wasp 18-b, no water was found, which is highly unusual. It can only be carbon monoxide, as if there were carbon dioxide, there would need to be some water for there to be enough oxygen molecules. It is likely that its atmosphere contains large amouts of ‘metals’, or elements heavier than hydrogen and helium which does point to it having formed differently.

“The expected launch of the James Webb Space Telescope and other future space-based observatories will give us the opportunity to follow up with even more powerful instruments and to continue exploring the amazing array of exoplanets out there,” said Avi Mandell, an exoplanet scientist at Goddard and the second author of the paper.

You can be sure more mysteries will be found!


One of my favourite weird exoplanets 55Cancri-e, AKA the diamond planet, is so close to its star its tidally locked, as in it always shows the same face to its star like the Moon does to Earth. It was originally thought that there would be lava lakes on the day side of the planet which would flow to the night side then harden. The Spizer space telescope has had a closer look and discovered it may well have an atmosphere with constituents much like Earth’s atmosphere.

“If there is lava on this planet, it would need to cover the entire surface,” said Renyu Hu, astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and co-author of a study published in The Astronomical Journal. “But the lava would be hidden from our view by the thick atmosphere.”

The super-Earth exoplanet 55 Cancri e, depicted with its star in this artist’s concept, likely has an atmosphere thicker than Earth’s but with ingredients that could be similar to those of Earth’s atmosphere.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By making a new and updated model of how planetary energy flows around the plant and radiates out into space, scientists found that the night side of the planet is hotter than had been expected, by hotter we mean about 13,00 to 14,00C. The hot side is around 2,300 C. What all of this means is that there would be a greater difference in temperatures were there no atmosphere.

“Scientists have been debating whether this planet has an atmosphere like Earth and Venus, or just a rocky core and no atmosphere, like Mercury. The case for an atmosphere is now stronger than ever,” Hu said.

Although it is thought that the planet is a super-Earth, rocky and with molecules like water, nitrogen and perhaps even oxygen, it will of course be far too hot to sustain life. Stdying planets such as this will give us much information as to how rocky planets form.


An unusual huge black hole has been spotted by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) which is 13 billion light years away, making it the furthest object of its type to have yet been found. What makes it so unusual is that it managed to grow so large a mere 690 million years after the big bang.

“This black hole grew far larger than we expected in only 690 million years after the Big Bang, which challenges our theories about how black holes form,” said study co-author Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Astronomers think that there must have been special conditions for such an object to grow so large, but there is currelty only speculation as to how it managed to do this. This black hole is a quasar. Quasars are very active, lumious young galaxies containg supermassive black holes surrounded by a disc of gas. This particular quasar is so fascinating because it comes from a point in time so close to the beginning of the Universe.

“Quasars are among the brightest and most distant known celestial objects and are crucial to understanding the early universe,” said co-author Bram Venemans of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.

Now for a very quick lesson on the history of the Universe courtesy of NASA as I can’t put this into better words:

“The universe began in a hot soup of particles that rapidly spread apart in a period called inflation. About 400,000 years after the Big Bang, these particles cooled and coalesced into neutral hydrogen gas. But the universe stayed dark, without any luminous sources, until gravity condensed matter into the first stars and galaxies. The energy released by these ancient galaxies caused the neutral hydrogen to get excited and ionize, or lose an electron. The gas has remained in that state since that time. Once the universe became reionzed, photons could travel freely throughout space. This is the point at which the universe became transparent to light. Much of the hydrogen surrounding the newly discovered quasar is neutral. That means the quasar is not only the most distant — it is also the only example we have that can be seen before the universe became reionized.”

“It was the universe’s last major transition and one of the current frontiers of astrophysics,” Bañados said. It’s hoped that by studying this distant object that we can gain valuable information about the young Universe.


Please watch your ears when you get to Saturn! Enjoy.

That’s all for this time space fans, see you next time and I hope everyone has a happy holiday.




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