NASA Finds Super-Hot Planet with Unique Comet-Like Tail
Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed the existence of a baked object that could be called a "cometary planet." The gas giant planet, named HD 209458b, is orbiting so close to its star that its heated atmosphere is escaping into space. Observations taken with Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) suggest powerful stellar winds are sweeping the cast-off atmospheric material behind the scorched planet and shaping it into a comet-like tail.

"Since 2003 scientists have theorized the lost mass is being pushed back into a tail, and they have even calculated what it looks like," said astronomer Jeffrey Linsky of the University of Colorado in Boulder, leader of the COS study. "We think we have the best observational evidence to support that theory. We have measured gas coming off the planet at specific speeds, some coming toward Earth. The most likely interpretation is that we have measured the velocity of material in a tail."

The planet, located 153 light-years from Earth, weighs slightly less than Jupiter but orbits 100 times closer to its star than the Jovian giant. The roasted planet zips around its star in a short 3.5 days. In contrast, our solar system's fastest planet, Mercury, orbits the Sun in 88 days. The extrasolar planet is one of the most intensely scrutinized, because it is the first of the few known alien worlds that can be seen passing in front of, or transiting, its star. Linsky and his team used COS to analyze the planet's atmosphere during transiting events.

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