Published: Fri, March 13, 2020
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

This new exoplanet is so hot it rains liquid metal

This new exoplanet is so hot it rains liquid metal

Astronomers from Geneva University in Switzerland discovered WASP-76b using the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.

According to the University of Geneva professor David Ehrenreich, it is likely that it rains every night at the exoplanet, except it rains iron rather than water.

He led a study, published today in the journal Nature, of this exotic exoplanet.

Like Moon around the Earth, the planet always keeps the same face towards its stars as it rotates around it, causing extreme temperature between day and night, explains Jonay I. Gonzalezz Hernandez, Ramon y Cajal researcher at IAC.

Meanwhile, its day side is bombarded with thousands of times more radiation from its parent star than the Earth gets from the sun. Ehrenreich and his team were able to make this determination based on observations of the transition area between night and the sides of the planet.

Using the Espresso spectrometer, the scientists detected a strong iron vapour signature at the evening frontier, or terminator, where the day on Wasp-76b transitions to night.

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"Surprisingly, however, we do not see the iron vapor in the morning", Ehrenreich said, likely because "it is raining iron on the night side of this extreme exoplanet". Meanwhile, on the night side-which experiences perpetual darkness-temperatures are much lower, hovering around 1,500 C. Specifically, the discovery was made possible thanks to an instrument called the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO).

The researchers also observed iron vapor present in the atmosphere at the border of the evening time and day time of WASP-76b.

In fact, this hemisphere must be so hot that all clouds are dispersed, and all molecules in the atmosphere are broken apart into individual atoms. "The hot side of WASP-76b-which is the part that is always receiving the heat from the parent star-has iron vapor". "Here, the iron is getting cold, it comes in contact with colder environments and it rains in rain".

This puffed-up planet is unflatteringly referred to as a bloated-hot Jupiter, because it is almost twice the size of our own gas giant and has a radius 20 times bigger than Earth's. The instrument-whose name is short for "Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations"-was initially created to identify Earth-like planets around stars like our sun". More than 4,000 exoplanets have now been confirmed and powerful new ground-based observatories under construction, such as the Extremely Large Telescope, and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch next year, are expected to bring astronomers closer to answering whether any of these have the necessary conditions to support extraterrestrial life.

Though WASP-76b was first discovered in 2013, these observations represent a first for the exoplanet, thanks to observations made through the VLT's new instrument, ESPRESSO.

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