A huge solar flare may be frying off the atmosphere of a Jupiter-size planet in a distant solar system.
Planet HD 189733b is the size of far away Jupiter, but it is situated only 1/30 the distance away from its sun as Earth. That’s closer than Mercury is to our sun. The surface of the planet is a whopping 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit.
HD 189733b was observed passing its star by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010, and astronomers were expecting to see atmospheric gasses flying off the planet in the face of the intense heat that goes along with being that close to a star. Instead, it was oddly stable.But last year, right before HD 189733b passed its sun again, Hubble observed a massive flare erupt. When the planet came back into view, astronomers noticed a massive plume of atmospheric gasses erupting from the planet.
Astronomers believe the intense x-rays from the flare caused the planet’s atmosphere to evaporate at a rate of almost 1,000 tons per second. It is a fascinating, if tragic, glimpse into the effects of cosmic weather far from home.
“We hadn’t just confirmed that some planets’ atmosphere evaporate, we had watched the physical conditions in the evaporating atmosphere vary over time,” said Alain Lecavelier des Etangs, of the National Center for Scientific Research in France, who headed up the study on this phenomenon, in a statement. “Nobody had done that before.”
Specific atmospheric gases can be detected thanks to the backlighting effect created when a planet passes by its sun. This technique was used on Venus recently, when it transited the sun.
Scientists can’t definitively say that the flare caused the atmosphere to melt off the planet, but teams are planning to do follow-up tests with Hubble and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray space telescope.