Astronomers don't think hot Jupiters like WASP-121b can form this close to their stars, precisely because they often see such stars actively losing material.
WASP-121b, which is roughly 900 light-years away from Earth, orbits close to a star that's much warmer than the sun.
Singh and his colleagues discovered another surprising property of this "hell" of a planet, trying to count the number of "metals" - elements heavier than helium and hydrogen, in different parts of its atmosphere. We were mainly looking for magnesium, but there have been hints of iron in the atmospheres of other exoplanets. The distant planet's atmosphere is so hot that metal is vaporizing and escaping the planet's gravitational pull. Hubble's WASP-121b observation results are detailed in a study in the Astronomical Journal, which was published on August 1.
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Researchers further pointed out that hot Jupiters are mostly made up of hydrogen, and since Hubble is very sensitive to hydrogen, it's relatively easier for these planets to lose the gas. The planet is so dangerously close to its star that its upper atmosphere reaches a blazing 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit, about 10 times greater than any known planetary atmosphere.
The sizzling planet is so close to its star that it is on the cusp of being ripped apart by the star's gravity. This gas creates the planet's early atmosphere as it's forming. In some ways, it's similar to many other hot Jupiters. "It turned out that the star just takes off its atmosphere", said David Singh (David Sing) from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (USA). Planets of that type are large gaseous planets that orbit very close to the host star.
The new observations, made by an worldwide team of astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, describe the first known instance of heavy metal gas streaming away from a "hot Jupiter", which is a nickname for large, gaseous exoplanets that orbit very close to their host stars. However, the hydrogen and helium gas on WASP-121b is outflowing, akin to a river, dragging the metals with them, Sing continued. "It's so hot and so favourable to observe, it's the best shot at finding the presence of heavy metals", noted Sing in a Hubble press release.
"This is a planet being actively stripped of its atmosphere", Sing added.
According to the researchers, WASP-121b will be a flawless target for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2021.