'Warm Neptune', an exoplanet comparable in size to our Neptune, has a cloudless sky, and a primitive atmosphere, one consisting of only hydrogen and helium. Researchers believe that, compared to the gas giants in our own solar neighborhood, this planet either developed later in the history of its solar system, closer to its star - or both.
Using data from NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, Wakeford's team found that HAT-P-26b's atmosphere is largely clear of clouds but reveals a strong water signature - what the researchers say is the best measurement to date of water on an exoplanet of this size.
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The atmosphere of this so-called warm Neptune, an exoplanet located 430 light years from Earth and much closer to its sun compared to the "real" Neptune, suggests two things: that HAT-P-26b actually formed closer to its star and/or that it formed later in its solar system development.
The discovery of such a primordial atmosphere on this Neptune-sized planet has implications for how scientists think about the birth and development of planetary systems.
The study reveals that the HAT-P-26b, which has been located about 437 light-years away, has a primitive atmosphere, which has been made of nearly entirely of hydrogen and helium. When this happens, some wavelengths of light are filtered while others are not.
For example, Jupiter has a metallicity about two to five times that of our sun.
"This is the first time we have measured a heavy element abundance in the atmosphere of a planet where it does not fit with the standard views of how and where certain planets form", Wakeford told WIRED.
Crucially, that water signature enabled the team to estimate HAT-P-26b's metallicity: the extent to which the planet's atmosphere is dominated by elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.
Speculated possibilities include atmospheres rich in hydrogen and helium, in carbon dioxide, or in water, depending on their formation and evolutionary history.
The atmospheres of Neptune-mass planets could have arisen from many different sources, resulting in a wide range of possible atmospheric compositions.
Neptune and Uranus, however, are richer in the heavier elements, with metallicities of about 100 times that of the Sun. It gives more clues about how a planet formed.
Jupiter and Saturn formed in a warmer part of the disc, meaning they weren't hit by as many of those objects. These kinds of worlds have been discovered before, but nothing quite like HAT-P-26b. The discovery points out at a greater diversity in the atmospheres of exoplanets than was previously assumed, says Professor Sing.
"This analysis shows that there is much more diversity in the atmospheres of these exoplanets than we expected, which provides an understanding of how planets can form and evolve differently than in our Solar system", said David Singh of the University of Exeter in the UK. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.
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