NASA Scientists Are ‘Cooking Up’ Alien Atmospheres In The Lab — Here’s Why

NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STSci)

A captivating new NASA project has just achieved a spectacular feat, the space agency announced earlier this week. Using a precise formula, scientists have managed to recreate the atmosphere of a certain type of alien planet in their own Earth-bound laboratory.

The credit goes to a team of researchers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, who have tried their hand at simulating the extreme environmental conditions one might expect to find on a “hot Jupiter.” And, according to a paper recently published in The Astrophysical Journal, it appears that they have succeeded.

Hot Jupiters

As The Inquisitr previously reported, hot Jupiters are a special class of exoplanets known for two distinctive characteristics — they are gas giants with masses in the range of Jupiter and they orbit extremely close to their parent stars.

Hot Jupiters sit just a few million miles away from their stellar hosts and take less than 10 days to go around them. Meanwhile, Earth is found at an average distance of 93 million miles from the sun and circles it in 365 days.

Dwelling in such close quarters with their star, coupled with the fact that these planets are tidally locked — one side always faces the glare of the star, while the other is plunged in darkness — means that their day-side is pummeled with intense ultraviolet radiation. As a result, it heats up to an exorbitant degree, reaching scorching surface temperatures that can range from 1,000 to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (530 to 2,800 degrees Celsius).

Artist's impression of a 'hot Jupiter' exoplanet.Featured image credit: ESA/HubbleWikimedia Commons/Resized

Believe it or not, hot Jupiters are not the hottest planets out there. When it comes to smoldering temperatures, “ultrahot Jupiters” take the cake, as these planets are hot enough to be stars.

The hottest planet ever discovered is an ultrahot Jupiter dubbed KELT-9b, which boasts surface temperatures of up to a staggering 7,800 degrees Fahrenheit (4,300 Celsius), per a previous report from The Inquisitr.

Artist's concept of ultrahot Jupiter KELT-9b, depicted next to its host planet, KELT-9.Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

According to NASA, the recipe for “cooking up” the atmosphere of a hot Jupiter in the lab is quite straightforward. All you need is hydrogen gas, carbon monoxide, some UV light, and a sturdy “oven.”

“Though it is impossible to exactly simulate in the laboratory these harsh exoplanet environments, we can come very close,” said JPL principal scientist Murthy Gudipati.

Here’s how they did it.

The How

The first step toward brewing their very own version of an alien atmosphere in the lab was to whip up a mixture of hydrogen gas and 0.3 percent carbon monoxide gas. Since these molecules are abundant both in the universe and in young solar systems, it was fair to assume that they would go on to make up the atmosphere of a hot Jupiter.

For their next step, the scientists used a special type of “oven” to heat the gas mixture to temperatures of up to 2,240 degrees Fahrenheit (330 and 1,230 degrees Celsius).

“Unlike a typical oven, theirs seals the gas in tightly to prevent leaks or contamination, and it allows the researchers to control the pressure of the gas as the temperature rises,” explained NASA.

The final touch was to blast the concoction with UV radiation, much in the same way as a hot Jupiter is pummeled with radiation by its star. In order to do so, the team used a hydrogen gas discharge lamp, which generated UV light and fed it to the gas container through a window — in a similar way to how a tidally-locked planet receives radiation by its star.

Image of the JPL 'oven' and its hydrogen gas discharge lamp, which radiates both visible light (the pink glow) and UV light.Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Why

The drive behind this experiment was to figure out why hot Jupiters tend to have very hazy atmospheres, even at high altitudes and in low-pressure regions where clouds are not likely to form.

Until now, scientists had assumed that the particular characteristics of hot Jupiter atmospheres were mostly influenced by their blazing temperatures. As it turned out, the UV light received by these irradiated planets plays a much bigger role in shaping their atmospheric chemistry.

After more than a week of radiation exposure in the oven, the artificial alien atmosphere began developing a shroud of aerosols — solid particles suspended in gas, like fog hanging over a city skyline, explains Live Science. This was what ultimately produced the atmospheric haze that the team was trying to account for.

The dish on the right shows organic aerosols formed inside the high-temperature oven.
The dish on the right shows organic aerosols formed inside the high-temperature oven.Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“This result changes the way we interpret those hazy hot Jupiter atmospheres,” said study lead author Benjamin Fleury.

“Going forward, we want to study the properties of these aerosols. We want to better understand how they form, how they absorb light and how they respond to changes in the environment.”