Hubble Space Telescope Discovers ‘Sunscreen Layer’ On A Distant Planet Named ‘WASP-33b’

In yet another landmark discovery by Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope, a Jupiter-like planet orbiting a distant star has been found to posses a stratosphere like our own Earth. According to NASA, this stratosphere acts like a “sunscreen layer” for the planet it blankets, essentially helping it cool down. The details of the findings pertaining to this “sunscreen layer” by the Hubble Space Telescope will be published in the June 12 issue of the Astrophysical Journal, a NASA press release confirmed.

According to NASA, the detection of the presence of an atmosphere on a planet outside of the solar system is a great discovery. In the long run, it will help us understand the composition of the planet and about the history of its formation. The discovery of this “sunscreen layer” is unique in the fact that planets of this size and temperature are not known to possess such an atmospheric layer. The new finding changes that belief.

The planet on which this “sunscreen layer” has been found is known as WASP-33b. Discovered in 2010, WASP-33b orbits a star named HD 15082 and is estimated to be nearly 378 light-years away from the Earth in the constellation of Andromeda. This planet is thought to be a gas giant like Jupiter, but it is estimated to be four times the size of Jupiter. However, unlike Jupiter, which orbits its star from quite a distance, WASP-33b happens to be very close to its parent star. This results in the planet being very hot, with surface temperatures in the vicinity of nearly 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Avi Mandell, one of the co-authors of the study that found the “sunscreen layer” on WASP-33b, says, “Some of these planets are so hot in their upper atmospheres, they’re essentially boiling off into space. At these temperatures, we don’t necessarily expect to find an atmosphere that has molecules that can lead to these multilayered structures.”

Unlike in the case of the WASP-33b, which seems to posses a single layer, our planet Earth has multiple layers that form its atmosphere. Our stratosphere sits above the troposphere, and unlike the troposphere, which causes most of the weather patterns on Earth, the stratosphere is primarily known for the presence of the Ozone layer, which absorbs a large amount of the sun’s deadly ultraviolet radiation and prevents it from reaching the surface of the Earth. For the same reason, the Earth’s stratosphere is largely responsible for protecting the biosphere from the harmful solar radiation.

Before the discovery of this stratosphere on WASP-33b, there was a raging debate on the possibility of such a layer being present on hot exoplanets. Owing to the high temperatures, a “normal” stratosphere made up of ozone or hydrocarbons was not thought to be possible. The findings on the WASP-33b, however, change all that. Meanwhile, team members of the study that discovered the “sunscreen layer” on WASP-33b believe large amounts of titanium oxide molecules could be present in the stratosphere of the huge planet.

NASA seems to be making great inroads into the discovery and study of new exoplanets with each passing day. It’s famous Kepler Mission has in the past been responsible for the discovery of several new exoplanets, several of them thought to have Earth-like qualities.

[Image Via NASA]

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