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A Planet Where It Rains Iron Discovered

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Researchers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have observed an extreme planet where they suspect it rains iron. The ultra-hot giant exoplanet has a day side where temperatures climb above 2400 degrees Celsius, high enough to vaporise metals. Strong winds carry iron vapour to the cooler night side where it condenses into iron droplets.What are the strangest exoplanets ever found or studied with ESO telescopes? Watch this ESOcast to find out.

Credit: ESO

“One could say that this planet gets rainy in the evening, except it rains iron,” says David Ehrenreich, a professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. He led a study, published today in the journal Nature, of this exotic exoplanet. Known as WASP-76b, it is located some 640 light-years away in the constellation of Pisces.This illustration shows a night-side view of the exoplanet WASP-76b. The ultra-hot giant exoplanet has a day side where temperatures climb above 2400 degrees Celsius, high enough to vaporise metals. Strong winds carry iron vapour to the cooler night side where it condenses into iron droplets. To the left of the image, we see the evening border of the exoplanet, where it transitions from day to night.

Artist’s impression of the night side of WASP-76b
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

This strange phenomenon happens because the ‘iron rain’ planet only ever shows one face, its day side, to its parent star, its cooler night side remaining in perpetual darkness. Like the Moon on its orbit around the Earth, WASP-76b is ‘tidally locked’: it takes as long to rotate around its axis as it does to go around the star.

On its day side, it receives thousands of times more radiation from its parent star than the Earth does from the Sun. It’s so hot that molecules separate into atoms, and metals like iron evaporate into the atmosphere. The extreme temperature difference between the day and night sides results in vigorous winds that bring the iron vapour from the ultra-hot day side to the cooler night side, where temperatures decrease to around 1500 degrees Celsius.

The ultra-hot giant exoplanet WASP-76b orbits the star WASP-76, located some 390 light-years away in the constellation of Pisces. This video takes us on a journey to this system. Observations of WASP-76b using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) suggest it rains iron on this extreme exoplanet. 
Credit: ESO/L.Calçada/spaceengine.org
Not only does WASP-76b have different day-night temperatures, it also has distinct day-night chemistry, according to the new study. Using the new ESPRESSO instrument on ESO’s VLT in the Chilean Atacama Desert, the astronomers identified for the first time chemical variations on an ultra-hot gas giant planet. They detected a strong signature of iron vapour at the evening border that separates the planet’s day side from its night side. “Surprisingly, however, we do not see the iron vapour in the morning,” says Ehrenreich. The reason, he says, is that “it is raining iron on the night side of this extreme exoplanet.”

“The observations show that iron vapour is abundant in the atmosphere of the hot day side of WASP-76b,” adds María Rosa Zapatero Osorio, an astrophysicist at the Centre for Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain, and the chair of the ESPRESSO science team. “A fraction of this iron is injected into the night side owing to the planet’s rotation and atmospheric winds. There, the iron encounters much cooler environments, condenses and rains down.”

This comic-book-style illustration by Swiss graphic novelist Frederik Peeters shows a close-up view of the evening border of the exoplanet WASP-76b. The ultra-hot giant exoplanet has a day side where temperatures climb above 2400 degrees Celsius, high enough to vaporise metals. Strong winds carry iron vapour to the cooler night side where it condenses into iron droplets.

Another artist’s impression of WASP-76b

 

Credit: Frederik Peeters (https://frederikpeeters.tumblr.com/)
Theoretical studies show that a planet, like WASP-76b, with an extremely hot day side and colder night side would have a gigantic condensation front in the form of a cloud cascade at its evening border, the transition from day to night, as depicted here. 

The ultra-hot giant exoplanet WASP-76b orbits the star WASP-76, located some 390 light-years away in the constellation of Pisces. This video shows the orbit of this strange planet around its host star.

Like the Moon on its orbit around the Earth, WASP-76b is ‘tidally locked’: it takes as long to rotate around its axis as it does to go around the star. On its day side temperatures climb above 2400 degrees Celsius, high enough to vaporise metals. Strong winds carry iron vapour to the cooler night side where it condenses into iron droplets.

Credit: ESO/L.Calçada/spaceengine.org

This result was obtained from the very first science observations done with ESPRESSO, in September 2018, by the scientific consortium who built the instrument: a team from Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and ESO.

ESPRESSO — the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations — was originally designed to hunt for Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars. However, it has proven to be much more versatile. “We soon realised that the remarkable collecting power of the VLT and the extreme stability of ESPRESSO made it a prime machine to study exoplanet atmospheres,” says Pedro Figueira, ESPRESSO instrument scientist at ESO in Chile.

“What we have now is a whole new way to trace the climate of the most extreme exoplanets,” concludes Ehrenreich.

Contacts and sources:
Bárbara Ferreira
ESO
Publication: Nightside condensation of iron in an ultra-hot giant exoplanet, David Ehrenreich et al.   https://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso2005/eso2005a.pdf

 



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    • PeacePlanet

      So, will I need a titanium umbrella to stay dry?

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