Exoplanets & Exomoons

Webb Studies Inflated Exoplanet WASP-107 b

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
NASA
May 20, 2024
Filed under , , , , , , , , , , ,
Webb Studies Inflated Exoplanet WASP-107 b
Exoplanet WASP-107 b — NASA

Why is the warm gas-giant exoplanet WASP-107 b so puffy? Two independent teams of researchers have an answer.

The unexpectedly high temperature is thought to be a result of tidal heating caused by the planet’s slightly non-circular orbit, and can explain how WASP-107 b can be so inflated without resorting to extreme theories of how it formed.

The results, which were made possible by Webb’s extraordinary ability to measure light passing through exoplanet atmospheres, may explain the puffiness of dozens of low-density exoplanets, helping to solve a long-standing mystery in exoplanet science.

The problem with WASP-107 b

At more than three-quarters the volume of Jupiter but less than one-tenth the mass, the ‘warm Neptune’ exoplanet WASP-107 b is one of the least dense planets known. While puffy planets are not uncommon, most are hotter and more massive, and therefore easier to explain.

“Based on its radius, mass, and age , we thought WASP-107 b had a very small, rocky core surrounded by a huge mass of hydrogen and helium,” explained Luis Welbanks from Arizona State University (ASU), lead author of a paper published today in Nature. “But it was hard to understand how such a small core could sweep up so much gas, and then stop short of growing fully into a Jupiter-mass planet.”

If WASP-107 b instead has more of its mass in the core, the atmosphere should have contracted as the planet cooled in the time since it formed. Without a source of heat to re-expand the gas, the planet should be much smaller. Although WASP-107 b has an orbital distance of just 5 million miles (one-seventh of the distance between Mercury and the Sun), it doesn’t receive enough energy from its star to be so inflated.

“WASP-107 b is such an interesting target for Webb because it’s significantly cooler and more Neptune-like in mass than many of the other low-density planets, the hot Jupiters, we’ve been studying,” said David Sing from the Johns Hopkins University (JHU), lead author of a parallel study also published today in Nature. “As a result, we should be able to detect methane and other molecules that can give us information about its chemistry and internal dynamics that we can’t get from a hotter planet.”

This transmission spectrum, captured using the NASA/ESA/CSA Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, shows the amounts of different wavelengths (colours) of starlight blocked by the atmosphere of the gas-giant exoplanet WASP-107 b . The spectrum includes light collected over four separate observations using a total of three different instruments: the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s WFC3 (0.8–1.6 microns), Webb’s NIRCam (2.4–4.0 microns and 3.9–5.0 microns), and Webb’s MIRI (5–12 microns). Each set of measurements was made by observing the planet–star system for about 10 hours before, during, and after the transit as the planet moved across the face of the star. By comparing the brightness of light filtered through the planet’s atmosphere (transmitted light) to unfiltered starlight, it is possible to calculate the amount of each wavelength that is blocked by the atmosphere. Since each molecule absorbs a unique combination of wavelengths, the transmission spectrum can be used to constrain the abundances of various gases. This spectrum shows clear evidence for water (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and ammonia (NH3) in the planet’s atmosphere, allowing researchers to estimate its interior temperature and the mass of its core. — ESA

A wealth of previously undetectable molecules

WASP-107 b’s giant radius, extended atmosphere, and edge-on orbit make it ideal for transmission spectroscopy, a method used to identify the various gases in an exoplanet atmosphere based on how they affect starlight.

Combining observations from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument), and Hubble’s WFC3 (Wide Field Camera 3), Welbanks’s team was able to build a broad spectrum of 0.8- to 12.2-micron light absorbed by WASP-107 b’s atmosphere. Using Webb’s NIRSpec (Near-Infrared Spectrograph), Sing’s team built an independent spectrum covering 2.7 to 5.2 microns .

The remarkable precision of the data makes it possible to not just detect, but actually measure the abundances of a wealth of molecules, including water vapour (H2O), methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and ammonia (NH3).

“With Webb’s NIRSpec spectroscopy we get direct insights into the chemistry of WASP-107 b”, said Stephan Birkmann of the European Space Agency and the Principal Investigator of the study’s NIRSpec observations. “The NIRSpec spectroscopy lets us probe the atmospheric composition of the planet, and neatly complements the MIRI and NIRCam observations.”

Roiling gas, hot Interior, and massive core

Both spectra show a surprising lack of methane in WASP-107 b’s atmosphere: one-thousandth of the amount expected based on its assumed temperature.

“This is evidence that hot gas from deep in the planet must be mixing vigorously with the cooler layers higher up,” explained Sing. “Methane is unstable at high temperatures. The fact that we detected so little, even though we did detect other carbon-bearing molecules, tells us that the interior of the planet must be significantly hotter than we thought.”

This transmission spectrum, captured using Webb’s NIRSpec (Near-Infrared Spectrograph), shows the amounts of different wavelengths (colours) of near-infrared starlight blocked by the atmosphere of the gas-giant exoplanet WASP-107 b . The spectrum was made by observing the planet-star system for about 8.5 hours before, during, and after the transit as the planet moved across the face of the star. By comparing the brightness of light filtered through the planet’s atmosphere (transmitted light) to unfiltered starlight, it is possible to calculate the amount of each wavelength that is blocked by the atmosphere. Since each molecule absorbs a unique combination of wavelengths, the transmission spectrum can be used to constrain the abundances of various gases. This spectrum shows clear evidence for water (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), and sulphur dioxide (SO2) in the planet’s atmosphere, allowing researchers to estimate its interior temperature and the mass of its core. — ESA

A likely source of WASP-107 b’s extra internal energy is tidal heating caused by its slightly elliptical orbit. With the distance between the star and planet changing continuously over the 5.7-day orbit, the gravitational pull is also changing, stretching the planet and heating it up.

Researchers had previously proposed that tidal heating could be the cause of WASP-107 b’s puffiness, but until the Webb results were in, there was no evidence.

Once they established that the planet has enough internal heat to thoroughly churn up the atmosphere, the teams realised that the spectra could also provide a new way to estimate the size of the core.

“If we know how much energy is in the planet, and we know what proportion of the planet is heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulphur, versus how much is hydrogen and helium, we can calculate how much mass must be in the core,” explained Daniel Thorngren from JHU.

It turns out that the core is at least twice as massive as originally estimated, which makes more sense in terms of how planets form.

Altogether, it turns out that WASP-107 b is not as mysterious as it once appeared.

“The Webb data tell us that planets like WASP-107 b didn’t have to form in some odd way with a super-small core and a huge gassy envelope,” explained Mike Line from ASU. “Instead, we can take something more like Neptune, with a lot of rock and not as much gas, just dial up the temperature, and poof it up to look the way it does.”

More information

Webb is the largest, most powerful telescope ever launched into space. Under an international collaboration agreement, ESA provided the telescope’s launch service, using the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Working with partners, ESA was responsible for the development and qualification of Ariane 5 adaptations for the Webb mission and for the procurement of the launch service by Arianespace. ESA also provided the workhorse spectrograph NIRSpec and 50% of the mid-infrared instrument MIRI, which was designed and built by a consortium of nationally funded European Institutes (The MIRI European Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.

Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, R. Crawford (STScI)

A warm Neptune’s methane reveals core mass and vigorous atmospheric mixing, Nature


A warm Neptune’s methane reveals core mass and vigorous atmospheric mixing

Observations of transiting gas giant exoplanets have revealed a pervasive depletion of methane, which has only recently been identified atmospherically. The depletion is thought to be maintained by disequilibrium processes such as photochemistry or mixing from a hotter interior. However, the interiors are largely unconstrained along with the vertical mixing strength and only upper limits on the CH4 depletion have been available. The warm Neptune WASP-107 b stands out among exoplanets with an unusually low density, reported low core mass, and temperatures amenable to CH4 though previous observations have yet to find the molecule. Here we present a JWST NIRSpec transmission spectrum of WASP-107 b which shows features from both SO2 and CH4 along with H2O, CO2, and CO. We detect methane with 4.2σ significance at an abundance of 1.0±0.5 ppm, which is depleted by 3 orders of magnitude relative to equilibrium expectations. Our results are highly constraining for the atmosphere and interior, which indicate the envelope has a super-solar metallicity of 43±8× solar, a hot interior with an intrinsic temperature of Tint=460±40 K, and vigorous vertical mixing which depletes CH4 with a diffusion coefficient of Kzz = 1011.6±0.1 cm2/s. Photochemistry has a negligible effect on the CH4 abundance, but is needed to account for the SO2. We infer a core mass of 11.5+3.0−3.6 M⊙, which is much higher than previous upper limits, releasing a tension with core-accretion models.

David K. Sing (1,2), Zafar Rustamkulov (1), Daniel P. Thorngren (2), Joanna K. Barstow (3), Pascal Tremblin (4,5), Catarina Alves de Oliveira (6), Tracy L. Beck (7), Stephan M. Birkmann (6), Ryan C. Challener (8), Nicolas Crouzet (9), Néstor Espinoza (7), Pierre Ferruit (6), Giovanna Giardino (10), Amélie Gressier (7), Elspeth K. H. Lee (11), Nikole K. Lewis (8), Roberto Maiolino (12), Elena Manjavacas (2,13), Bernard J. Rauscher (14), Marco Sirianni (15), Jeff A. Valenti (7) ((1) Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, (2) Department of Physics & Astronomy, Johns Hopkins University, (3) School of Physical Sciences, The Open University, (4) Université Paris-Saclay, UVSQ, CNRS, CEA, Maison de la Simulation, (5) Université Paris-Saclay, Université Paris Cité, CEA, CNRS, AIM, (6) European Space Agency, European Space Astronomy Centre, (7) Space Telescope Science Institute, (8) Department of Astronomy and Carl Sagan Institute, Cornell University, (9) Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, (10) ATG Europe for the European Space Agency, ESTEC, (11) Center for Space and Habitability, University of Bern, (12) University of Cambridge, (13) AURA for the European Space Agency, (14) NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, (15) European Space Agency, ESA Office, STScI)

Comments: Published in Nature at this URL, this https URL . This is the authors version of the manuscript, 20 pages including Methods. Data from Figs. 1, 2, and 3 are available at this URL, this https URL
Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)
Cite as: arXiv:2405.11027 [astro-ph.EP] (or arXiv:2405.11027v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)
Related DOI:
https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-024-07395-z
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Submission history
From: David Sing
[v1] Fri, 17 May 2024 18:01:02 UTC (3,082 KB)
https://arxiv.org/abs/2405.11027

Astrobiology

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