Raining Vaporized Rock: Hubble Probes Bizarre Weather Conditions on Sizzling Worlds

Ultra-Hot Jupiter-Sized Exoplanet Illustration

This is an artist’s illustration of the planet KELT-20b which orbits a blue-white star. The giant planet is so close to its star (5 million miles) the torrent of ultraviolet radiation from the star heats the planet’s atmosphere to over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This creates a thermal layer where the atmosphere increases in temperature with altitude. This is the best evidence to date – gleaned from the Hubble Space Telescope – for a host star affecting a planet’s atmosphere directly. The seething planet is 456 light-years away. Credit: NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI)

Sizzling Worlds Vaporize Most of the Dust in Their Atmospheres

“When you’re hot, you’re hot!” crooned country singer Jerry Reed in a top 1971 pop music song. Hubble astronomers might change the lyrics to: “when you’re hot, you’re super-hot!”

This comes from studying planets that are so precariously close to their parent star they are being roasted at seething temperatures above 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s raining vaporized rock on one planet, and another planet’s atmosphere is being “sunburned” by intense ultraviolet radiation from its star. This makes the upper atmosphere hotter rather than cooler.

This Hubble research provides dramatic new insights into the vast range of atmospheric conditions on other worlds, and helps astronomers build better theories for making themselves “exoplanet weather forecasters.” Before thousands of planets around other stars were discovered, astronomers were limited to doing comparative planetology only to the handful of worlds in our solar system.

As oddball as the super-hot Jupiters are, this kind of research helps pave the way to better understanding the atmospheres of cooler exoplanets, especially potentially inhabitable terrestrial planets. The super-hot Jupiters are uninhabitable, of course, and any visitors would need to wear sunscreen SPF 10,000.

Hubble Probes Extreme Weather on Ultra-Hot Jupiters

In studying a unique class of ultra-hot exoplanets, NASA Hubble Space Telescope astronomers may be in the mood for dancing to the Calypso party song “Hot, Hot, Hot.” That’s because these bloated Jupiter-sized worlds are so precariously close to their parent star they are being roasted at seething temperatures above 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hot enough to vaporize most metals, including titanium. They have the hottest planetary atmospheres ever seen.

In two new papers, teams of Hubble astronomers are reporting on bizarre weather conditions on these sizzling worlds. It’s raining vaporized rock on one planet, and another one has its upper atmosphere getting hotter rather than cooler because it is being “sunburned” by intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation from its star.

This research goes beyond simply finding weird and quirky planet atmospheres. Studying extreme weather gives astronomers better insights into the diversity, complexity, and exotic chemistry taking place in far-flung worlds across our galaxy.

“We still don’t have a good understanding of weather in different planetary environments,” said David Sing of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, co-author on the two studies being reported. “When you look at Earth, all our weather predictions are still finely tuned to what we can measure. But when you go to a distant exoplanet, you have limited predictive powers because you haven’t built a general theory about how everything in an atmosphere goes together and responds to extreme conditions. Even though you know the basic chemistry and physics, you don’t know how it’s going to manifest in complex ways.”

In a paper in the April 6 journal Nature, astronomers describe Hubble observations of WASP-178b, located about 1,300 light-years away. On the daytime side the atmosphere is cloudless, and is enriched in silicon monoxide gas. Because one side of the planet permanently faces its star, the torrid atmosphere whips around to the nighttime side at super-hurricane speeds exceeding 2,000 miles per hour. On the dark side, the silicon monoxide may cool enough to condense into rock that rains out of clouds, but even at dawn and dusk, the planet is hot enough to vaporize rock. “We knew we had seen something really interesting with this silicon monoxide feature,” said Josh Lothringer of the Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah.

In a paper published in the January 24 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, Guangwei Fu of the University of Maryland, College Park, reported on a super-hot Jupiter, KELT-20b, located about 400 light-years away. On this planet a blast of ultraviolet light from its parent star is creating a thermal layer in the atmosphere, much like Earth’s stratosphere. “Until now we never knew how the host star affected a planet’s atmosphere directly. There have been lots of theories, but now we have the first observational data,” Fu said.

By comparison, on Earth, ozone in the atmosphere absorbs UV light and raises temperatures in a layer between seven to 31 miles above Earth’s surface. On KELT-20b the UV radiation from the star is heating metals in the atmosphere which makes for a very strong thermal inversion layer.

Evidence came from Hubble’s detection of water in near-infrared observations, and from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope’s detection of carbon monoxide. They radiate through the hot, transparent upper atmosphere that is produced by the inversion layer. This signature is unique from what astronomers see in the atmospheres of hot-Jupiters orbiting cooler stars, like the Sun. “The emission spectrum for KELT-20b is quite different from other hot-Jupiters,” said Fu. “This is compelling evidence that planets don’t live in isolation but are affected by their host star.”

Though super-hot Jupiters are uninhabitable, this kind of research helps pave the way to better understanding the atmospheres of potentially inhabitable terrestrial planets. “If we can’t figure out what’s happening on super-hot Jupiters where we have reliable solid observational data, we’re not going to have a chance to figure out what’s happening in weaker spectra from observing terrestrial exoplanets,” said Lothringer. “This is a test of our techniques that allows us to build a general understanding of physical properties such as cloud formation and atmospheric structure.”


“UV absorption by silicate cloud precursors in ultra-hot Jupiter WASP-178b” by Joshua D. Lothringer, David K. Sing, Zafar Rustamkulov, Hannah R. Wakeford, Kevin B. Stevenson, Nikolay Nikolov, Panayotis Lavvas, Jessica J. Spake and Autumn T. Winch, 6 April 2022, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04453-2

“Strong H2O and CO Emission Features in the Spectrum of KELT-20b Driven by Stellar UV Irradiation” by Guangwei Fu, David K. Sing, Joshua D. Lothringer, Drake Deming, Jegug Ih, Eliza M. -R. Kempton, Matej Malik, Thaddeus D. Komacek, Megan Mansfield and Jacob L. Bean, 24 January 2022, Astrophysical Journal Letters.
DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ac4968

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

2 Comments on "Raining Vaporized Rock: Hubble Probes Bizarre Weather Conditions on Sizzling Worlds"

  1. This planet “creates a thermal layer where the atmosphere increases in temperature with altitude”

    In a way, that is exactly what is happening on the Sun. The surface on the Sun is 10,000° Fahrenheit but the corona is a million. Both of these cases are created from these masses being born as stars and cooling from the surface inward. In actually, both the planet and its Sun began their lives as a single mass of what’s called quark plasma. This is absolute minimum entropy matter which is optically invisible and can make shapes. It is invisible because all it emits are gamma rays. This system had rotation and created a disk with a bulbous center. The center separated from the disk and its Sun was born as a black hole. This planet formed as quark plasma as well when it was created in the quark plasma disk as a smaller mass.
    Quark plasma is incredibly simple. It is made of quarks that have been broken up by an extreme reaction. The catalyst for this matter is simply the dark matter of space that causes gravity. The strong force between the quarks and the dark matter, which is made of extremely pressurized electron neutrinos, cause a disruption in the gravity field that throws the neutrinos out of the reaction as gamma rays. It is the pressure of dark matter that is able to keep the quarks apart indefinitely.
    The quarks and electron neutrinos eventually create the first optical light when they fuse on the surface to create neutrons turning the mass into a neutron star. At this point however, the mass is still predominantly quark plasma. The neutrons then naturally break down to hydrogen. The constantly forming neutrons then fuse with the hydrogen to create helium using the beta minus decay reaction. This process continues creating heavier and heavier elements with the quark plasma just underneath the surface. It continues creating heavier elements until the light goes out and a surface forms. That is when the atmosphere is allowed to develop. The neutrinos that create the reaction go through normal matter invisibly causing only gravity.

    What this mass is doing is spewing hot gasses into the atmosphere whereas the surface is cooling. At 3,000°, the whole planet is simply filled with nothing but volcanos. The corona on the Sun is so hot because it is creating a surface that is much cooler and even creates sunspots which are only 5,000° F. This is the temperature in which iron is a liquid.

    All of the energy to do this is right underneath the surface of the Sun as well.

  2. … there are some sound raining rather than rocks,

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