Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Really Big Planets: When Do Gas Giants Reach The Point Of No Return?

Date:
December 7, 2007
Source:
University College London
Summary:
Astronomers have identified the point at which a star causes the atmosphere of an orbiting gas giant to become critically unstable. Depending upon their proximity to a host star, giant Jupiter-like planets have atmospheres which are either stable and thin, or unstable and rapidly expanding. The research enables us to work out whether planets in other systems are stable or unstable by using a 3-D model to characterize their atmospheres.

Artist conception of the extrasolar planet HD209458b as it moves behind its parent star.
Credit: R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech), JPL-Caltech, NASA

Planetary scientists at UCL have identified the point at which a star causes the atmosphere of an orbiting gas giant to become critically unstable, as reported in this week's Nature (December 6). Depending upon their proximity to a host star, giant Jupiter-like planets have atmospheres which are either stable and thin, or unstable and rapidly expanding. This new research enables us to work out whether planets in other systems are stable or unstable by using a three dimensional model to characterise their upper atmospheres.

Tommi Koskinen of UCL's Physics & Astronomy Department is lead author of the paper and says: "We know that Jupiter has a thin, stable atmosphere and orbits the Sun at five Astronomical Units (AU) - or five times the distance between the Sun and the Earth. In contrast, we also know that closely orbiting exoplanets like HD209458b - which orbits about 100 times closer to its sun than Jupiter does - has a very expanded atmosphere which is boiling off into space. Our team wanted to find out at what point this change takes place, and how it happens.

"Our paper shows that if you brought Jupiter inside the Earth's orbit, to 0.16AU, it would remain Jupiter-like, with a stable atmosphere. But if you brought it just a little bit closer to the Sun, to 0.14AU, its atmosphere would suddenly start to expand, become unstable and escape. This dramatic change takes place because the cooling mechanism that we identified breaks down, leading to the atmosphere around the planet heating up uncontrollably."

Professor Alan Aylward, co-author of the paper, explains some of the factors which the team incorporated in order to make the breakthrough: "For the first time we've used 3D-modelling to help us understand the whole heating process which takes place as you move a gas giant closer to its sun. The model incorporates the cooling effect of winds blowing around the planet - not just those blowing off the surface and escaping.

"Crucially, the model also makes proper allowances for the effects of H3+ in the atmosphere of a planet. This is an electrically-charged form of hydrogen which strongly radiates sunlight back into space and which is created in increasing quantities as you heat a planet by bringing it closer to its star.

"We found that 0.15AU is the significant point of no return. If you take a planet even slightly beyond this, molecular hydrogen becomes unstable and no more H3+ is produced. The self-regulating, 'thermostatic' effect then disintegrates and the atmosphere begins to heat up uncontrollably."

Professor Steve Miller, the final contributing author to the paper, puts the discovery into context: "This gives us an insight to the evolution of giant planets, which typically form as an ice core out in the cold depths of space before migrating in towards their host star over a period of several million years. Now we know that at some point they all probably cross this point of no return and undergo a catastrophic breakdown.

"Just twelve years ago astronomers were searching for evidence of the first extrasolar planet. It's amazing to think that since then we've not only found more than 250 of them, but we're also in a much better position to understand where they came from and what happens to them during their lifetime."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University College London. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University College London. "Really Big Planets: When Do Gas Giants Reach The Point Of No Return?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 December 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071205131158.htm>.
University College London. (2007, December 7). Really Big Planets: When Do Gas Giants Reach The Point Of No Return?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 19, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071205131158.htm
University College London. "Really Big Planets: When Do Gas Giants Reach The Point Of No Return?." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071205131158.htm (accessed September 19, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Friday, September 19, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Boeing, SpaceX to Send Astronauts to Space Station

Boeing, SpaceX to Send Astronauts to Space Station

AFP (Sep. 17, 2014) — NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX on Tuesday to build America's next spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017, opening the way to a new chapter in human spaceflight. Duration: 01:13 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
East Coast Treated To Rare Meteor Sighting

East Coast Treated To Rare Meteor Sighting

Newsy (Sep. 16, 2014) — Numerous residents along the East Coast reported seeing a bright meteor flash through the sky Sunday night. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Space Race Pits Bezos Vs Musk

Space Race Pits Bezos Vs Musk

Reuters - Business Video Online (Sep. 16, 2014) — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' startup will team up with Boeing and Lockheed to develop rocket engines as Elon Musk races to have his rockets certified. Fred Katayama reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
NASA Picks Boeing and SpaceX to Ferry Astronauts

NASA Picks Boeing and SpaceX to Ferry Astronauts

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) — NASA is a giant step closer to launching Americans again from U.S. soil. It has announced it has picked Boeing and SpaceX to transport astronauts to the International Space Station in the next few years. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins