Sunscreen Snow Found On Giant Planet Outside Of Earth’s Solar System

Astronomers have discovered an interesting feature on a red-hot, giant planet outside of our solar system. The atmosphere “snows” titanium dioxide, the active ingredient used in most brands of sunscreen. The discovery was made by a team of astronomers at Penn State who used the Hubble Telescope to identify the planet’s “sunscreen snow” phenomenon.

According to Science Daily, this is the first time that this “snow-out” or “cold trap” process has been discovered on an exoplanet, defined as a planet orbiting a star outside of our solar system. These observations will help expand researchers’ understanding of the complicated weather patterns that exist on these exo-planets and could assist in determining whether they are viable for human habitation.

“In many ways, the atmospheric studies we’re doing now on these gaseous ‘hot Jupiter’ kinds of planets are test beds for how we’re going to do atmospheric studies of terrestrial, Earth-like planets,” said Thomas Beatty, assistant research professor of astronomy at Penn State and the lead researcher on the study.

Located 1,730 light-years from Earth, the exoplanet has been named Kepler-13ab and it closely orbits its host star, Kepler-13A. According to Space.com, the planet was discovered by NASA’s Kepler Telescope back in 2011. It’s actually one part of a planetary system that includes its host star, Kepler 13A, and two other stars called “companion stars.”

In this handout digital illustration released on September 15, 2011 by NASA, the newly-discovered gaseous planet Kepler-16b orbits it's two stars. NASA's Kepler Mission discoverd the world orbiting two Stars, the larger a K dwarf and the smaller a red dwarf. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle via Getty Images)

Although it’s called a “hot Jupiter,” Kepler 13ab is actually six times the size of Jupiter. The Kepler is also much hotter than Jupiter too. It’s average planetary temperature clocks in at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it one of the hottest exoplanets that have been discovered so far. Also, one side of the planet is always dark because the planet is tidally locked to its star. The gravitational pull is so strong on this side that it drives down titanium dioxide and it condenses, forming a substance that’s similar to snow.

The astronomy team at Penn State didn’t expect to find the titanium oxide. But they noticed that the temperatures on this planet got colder at higher altitudes. Normally exoplanets with titanium oxide in the atmosphere have hot atmospheres because the oxide absorbs the starlight and re-radiates it as heat. But the astronomers found that the titanium oxide was absent from the daytime side of the planet which means that starlight isn’t being absorbed on that side which explains the colder temperatures at higher altitudes.

The study’s results were published in the October, 2017, issue The Astronomical Journal.


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[Featured Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt via Getty Images]