It’s raining sand (on a distant fluffy exoplanet)

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Friday, November 17, 2023 - 2:16pm

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Illustration: LUCA School of Arts, Belgium/ Klaas Verpoest (visuals), Johan Van Looveren (typography). Science: Achrène Dyrek (CEA and Université Paris Cité, France), Michiel Min (SRON, the Netherlands), Leen Decin (KU Leuven, Belgium) / ESA / NASA
Peering deep into the fluffy atmosphere of WASP-107b a team of European astronomers discovered not only water vapor and sulfur dioxide, but even silicate sand clouds.

About 200 light years away, a planet with a mass like Neptune, a diameter like Jupiter and an atmosphere like Venus whips backward around its star, eight times closer than Mercury circles our sun, and completes an orbit once every six days.

Scientist using an infrared instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have now peered deep into the “fluffy” exoplanet.

The gas giant, dubbed WASP-107b, holds water, lacks methane and has a warm interior. Its nearby star boils off the planet’s atmosphere and pushes it away, much like the tail of a comet.

But the most striking aspect reported in the journal Nature might be the fog of 800-degree F (425 C) sand that floats suspended and rains down within its atmosphere.

“At these temperatures, that probably comes down as rain droplets,” said Arizona State University regent’s professor Rogier Windhorst, who has worked on JWST for the past 22 years. “So, it's raining sand — sandstorms, if you wish. Very interesting.”

Illustration: LUCA School of Arts, Belgium/ Klaas Verpoest (visuals), Johan Van Looveren (typography). Science: Achrène Dyrek (CEA and Université Paris Cité, France), Michiel Min (SRON, the Netherlands), Leen Decin (KU Leuven, Belgium) /ESA / NASA
Peering deep into the fluffy atmosphere of WASP-107b a team of European astronomers discovered not only water vapor and sulfur dioxide, but even silicate sand clouds.

Windhorst said it’s remarkable that worlds like WASP-107b exist, and added that they show how lucky we are to live “on a good planet that hosts life.”

“I'm not saying we're the only one; but we're still special,” he said. “You know, if you think these other planets are heaven on Earth, I would liken them more like purgatory, you know, 800 degrees Fahrenheit, it's raining sand, and it's smelling like a cow barn.”

He added that he would like to continue to search for more Earthlike exoplanets.

“That's going to be hard because they're more rare,” he said. “But we're going to find some, and we're going to study them hard.”

Michiel Min / European MIRI EXO GTO team / ESA / NASA; Klaas Verpoest (LUCA School of Arts, Belgium)
A transmission spectrum of the warm Neptune exoplanet WASP-107b, captured by the JWST's Mid InfraRed Instrument, reveals evidence for water vapor, sulfur dioxide and silicate (sand) clouds in the planet’s atmosphere.

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