(CNN) – Astronomers have detected an unexpected chemical element high up on the atmosphere of two sizzling exoplanets where liquid iron and gems fall from the sky.
The two exoplanets, which orbit separate stars beyond our solar system, are ultrahot gas giants called WASP-76b and WASP-121b. The astronomers used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope to detect barium high in the atmosphere of each exoplanet.
The barium is the heaviest element ever discovered within the atmosphere of an exoplanet. The journal Astronomy & Astrophysics published a study detailing the discovery on Thursday.
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With each reveal, WASP-76b and WASP-121b they seem stranger to scientists.
“The puzzling and counterintuitive part is: why is there such a heavy element in the upper layers of the atmosphere of these planets?said the lead author of the study, Thomas Azevedo Silvaa doctoral student at the University of Porto and the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences in Portugal, in a statement.
“This was kind of a accidental discovery. We weren’t expecting or looking for barium in particular and had to verify that it actually came from the planet, as it had never been seen on any exoplanet before.”
Both exoplanets are similar in size to Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, but have incredibly high surface temperatures well above 1,000 degrees Celsius.
The elevated temperatures in WASP-76b and WASP-121b are due to the fact that each planet is located close to its host starcompleting a single orbit in about a day or two.
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First discovered in 2015, WASP-121b is about 855 light-years from Earth. The exoplanet has an atmosphere of glowing water vapor, and the strong gravitational attraction of the star it orbits is deforming it into the shape of a soccer ball.
The planet is tidally locked, meaning that the same side of the planet always faces the star. This is similar to how our moon orbits the Earth. On the day side, temperatures start at 2227 C in the deepest layer. deep in the atmosphere and reach 3227 C in the upper layer.
Scientists first detected WASP-76b in 2016. It orbits around a star in the constellation of Pisces., 640 light years from Earth. This exoplanet is also tidally locked, so on its day side, which faces the star, temperatures exceed 4,400 F (2,426 C).
The fiery nature of exoplanets has given them unusual features and a climate that seems straight out of science fiction. Scientists believe that liquid iron rains from the sky on WASP-76b, while in WASP-121b clouds of metal and liquid gems are formed.
The detection of barium in the upper atmosphere of each planet surprised the researchers. The element is 2 1/2 times heavier than iron..
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“Given the high gravity of the planets, we would expect heavy elements like barium to fall rapidly into the lower layers of the atmosphere.”said study co-author Olivier Demangeon, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Porto and the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences. in Portugal, in a statement.
Finding barium in the atmosphere of both exoplanets could suggest that ultrahot gas giants have even more unusual features than suspected.
On Earth, barium appears in the night skies as a vibrant green color when fireworks are lit. But scientists aren’t sure what natural process is causing the heavy element to appear so high in the atmosphere of these gas giants.
The research team used the ESPRESSO instrument, or Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations, installed on the Very Large Telescope in Chile, to study starlight as it passed through the atmosphere of each planet.
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“Being gaseous and hot, their atmospheres are very extensive”Demangeon said, “and are therefore easier to observe and study than those from smaller or cooler planets.”
Future telescopes will also be able to spy more detail within exoplanets’ atmospheric layers, including rocky Earth-like ones, to uncover the mysteries of unusual worlds throughout the galaxy.
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