NASA's Hubble spots "pitch black" planet lurking beyond our solar system

WASP-12b

Hubble observes exoplanet so dark that it absorbs 94 percent of the visible starlight that falls on it

New data from the Hubble Space Telescope shows that WASP-12b, which has a radius twice as large as Jupiter's, is an incredibly hot planet with a very low albedo-meaning that it's incredibly dark. This is because the exoplanet absorbs about 94 percent of the light in the visible spectrum that falls on its atmosphere.

WASP-12b was discovered by the UK's Wide Area Search for Planets (WASP) in April 2008.

Since its discovery in 2008, WASP-12b has become one of the most studied exoplanets and has a range of unusual properties.

WASP-12b has a radius nearly twice that of Jupiter and one year on the planet lasts a little longer than a day on Earth.

WASP-12b is so close to its parent star that its daylight side is superheated to almost 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,540 degrees Celsius) and stretched into a football shape by enormous tidal forces. This Hot-Jupiter, located in a star system 1400 light years from Earth in the direction of the Auriga constellation, was recently studied by a team of astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope. COS detected material from the planet's super-heated atmosphere spilling onto the star. The Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph on board the Hubble Space Telescope was used to measure the light reflected from the planet, a property known as "albedo".

The full results of the study, performed to observe WASP-12b's atmosphere, are available in the Thursday's issue of "The Astrophysical Journal Letters".

Another gas giant named the HD 189733b was viewed to possess deep blue color, and its albedo measurements were quite different from WASP-12b. The incoming light is absorbed by hydrogen atoms and converted to heat energy which is why the planet is extremely hot and appears like a fresh asphalt.

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For perspective, the moon's albedo on the same scale is 0.12, and Earth's is 0.37.

In particular, the WASP-12b study sheds new light (excuse the pun) on what the atmosphere around WASP-12b is like, and how that compares to other exoplanets of a similar size.

"We did not expect to find such a dark exoplanet", said lead researcher Taylor Bell of McGill University and the Institute for Research on Exoplanets in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

"There are other hot Jupiters that have been found to be remarkably black, but they are much cooler than WASP-12b", Bell said. Researchers have theorized that the planet's close proximity to its star could be responsible. It is even hot enough to break up hydrogen molecules into atomic hydrogen which causes the atmosphere to act more like the atmosphere of a low-mass star than like a planetary atmosphere. These type phenomena make the albedo very low.

The side that receives the most light reaches temperatures that are too hot for clouds and alkali metals to form. At night the planet cools down to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit which allows clouds and vapour to form, and reflects some light.

"We measured the optical geometric albedo of WASP-12b, which measures the light that is scattered back towards the source of light, and can have values above 1".

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