MIT: Exploring The Skies Of Distant Planets

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a group of researchers are penetrating into the unknown atmospheres of distant planets. Utilizing existing technology with a handy new technique, the individuals at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences are beginning to uncover the components of clouds on exoplanets, specifically Kepler-7b.

The data comes directly from the Kepler space telescope, for which the exoplanet is named. It is a gas giant similar to our Jupiter, but is located some 5.5 billion miles away from Earth.

This is how the process works: Kepler was pointed at a fixed area of space, allowing it to monitor the brightness of approximately 145,000 stars. Exoplanets, or planets that do not orbit our own Sun, would routinely orbit in front of their star, altering the brightness of that star.

By looking at the variations in light, the team at MIT is able to detect if clouds are present in the exoplanet’s atmosphere. How? Since the clouds refract light, it enables their detection.

Further, the team, led by Kerri Cahoy, can even determine the composition of these clouds and how they could potentially form using theoretical models of how Kepler-7b’s pressure and temperature would affect cloud formation.

Running backwards through this data, they could then see if their models fit the data they received from the Kepler space telescope. It turns out that the some of the clouds upon 7b are formed of magnesium and silicates, both of which are normally solid rock here on Earth. The researchers believe that the particles are gaseous due to the extremely high temperature upon the exoplanet.

With this data in hand, the team can make great estimations about the inner compositions of the exoplanet’s atmosphere, how much sunlight will be reflected, and ultimately, its habitability.

This is not the only news we should be expecting from MIT’s astronomy department any time soon. They are also planning their own mission with NASA: the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), will allow the researchers at MIT to pick and choose which set of stars they want to look for.

The full article will be available in an upcoming edition of the Astrophysical Journal.