NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has captured stunning new images revealing rapidly evolving weather patterns and turbulent storms raging on a distant exoplanet known as WASP-121b located 880 light-years from Earth.
Hubble’s Latest Observations
The Hubble observations, conducted over the course of three years from 2016 to 2019, offer an unprecedented glimpse into the extreme and wildly fluctuating climate of this bizarre alien world dubbed a “hot Jupiter.”
Atmospheric gases on WASP-121b are heated to a scorching 4600°F, hot enough to vaporize metals. Powerful cyclones wider than the United States churn across the exoplanet’s surface, transporting heat from its permanent dayside to nightside.
According to a NASA press release, Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 snapped images of WASP-121b at ultraviolet and visible wavelengths as it orbited its Sun-like host star. By observing variations in the planet’s illumination and coloration over multiple orbits, astronomers were able to visually confirm simulation models predicting chaotic and rapidly evolving weather.
“We saw a bright spot of light moving at tremendous speed, changing direction, even shape, in ways not previously observed,” said lead researcher Dr. Emily Mailey of the University of Chicago. “Capturing the dynamical weather was pure luck – if we’d observed the planet just a few hours later or earlier, we could have entirely missed it.”
What’s Causing the Turbulence?
WASP-121b orbits so closely to its star that it is “tidally locked” – meaning the same face perpetually points toward the star with the night side in permanent darkness.
This strange orientation combined with the intense stellar radiation leads to extreme temperature differentials and volatile weather as heat from the subsolar region interacts with cooler gases circulating around the planet’s dark side. Powerful jet streams over 2000 mph accelerate this heat transfer.
Additionally, Hubble detected signatures of ionized magnesium and iron gases escaping the lower atmosphere – the first evidence of “iron rain” from an exoplanet. This exotic precipitation likely fuels the intense storms and wind speeds observed.
“It’s incredible – storms with the force of massive hurricanes but spread over an area 100 times greater than Earth,” said co-author Dr. Thomas Evans of MIT. “And unlike anything in our solar system, this metallic vapor rain introduces a completely foreign weather variable.”
What’s Next for Exoplanet Climate Research?
While Hubble has provided the first detailed look at weather on an exoplanet, the aging space telescope’s capabilities are limited.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, with its advanced infrared instruments, will allow an even closer study of hot Jupiter climates and chemistry when it begins science operations later this year.
“JWST will enable remarkable new insights into these extreme alien environments – the atmospheric composition, cloud dynamics, temperature maps,” said Dr. Mailey. “We’ve had a tiny peek behind the curtain, but we’ve only just begun to grasp how wild the weather can get on worlds across the galaxy.”
Open Questions After Hubble’s Observations
Hubble’s tantalizing findings have left researchers with many unanswered questions about the nature and causes of WASP-121b’s dramatic weather:
- How do jet streams and cyclones interact on the dark side to transport heat? Complex models with gaps.
- What role does metallic “iron rain” play in storm formation and cloud composition? More data needed.
- How might weather patterns evolve on even hotter worlds? JWST will expand knowledge.
“This is an exciting discovery, but really just the first glimpse into a new field of exoplanet meteorology,” said team member Dr. Susan Fleming of the Space Telescope Science Institute. “Hubble has cracked open Pandora’s box, and we look forward to unraveling more mysteries about alien weather in the years ahead.”
Table summarizing key facts on WASP-121b
Planet Type | Hot Jupiter | Gas giant orbiting close to star |
Orbit | ~1.3 days | Extremely tight, tidally locked |
Temperature | 4600°F dayside | Hot enough to vaporize metal |
Weather Observed | Powerful cyclones, jet streams | Winds over 2000 mph |
Composition | Exotic metallic gases | First evidence of iron rain |
Significance | Detailed weather observation of exoplanet atmosphere | Demonstrates chaotic and evolving weather |
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