NASA’s Spitzer Illuminates Exoplanets in Astronomical Society Briefing

This illustration shows what clouds might look like in the atmosphere of a brown dwarf. Using NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope, scientists were able to detect clouds and other weather features in brown dwarf atmospheres. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/IPAC/T. Pyle)

The infrared observatory may help answer questions about planets outside our solar system, or exoplanets, including how they form and what drives weather in their atmospheres.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Two new studies using data from NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope shed light on giant exoplanets and brown dwarfs, objects that aren’t quite stars but aren’t quite planets either. Both studies will be the focus of virtual news conferences hosted by the American Astronomical Society on Jan. 13.

One investigation shows that the weather on brown dwarfs – which form like stars but don’t have sufficient mass to start burning hydrogen in their cores as stars do – varies with age. Brown dwarfs and giant exoplanets are similar in diameter, mass, and composition, so understanding the atmospheric properties of one can provide insights about those of the other.

The second study belongs to a body of work looking at hot Jupiters – gas exoplanets that orbit extremely close to their parent stars. How do these massive planets come to be, and could there be subclasses of hot Jupiters with different formation stories? To look for answers, the study authors looked at exoplanet XO-3b, a rare example of a hot Jupiter observed while migrating closer to its host star.

Exoplanet Analogs

Age often brings stability in humans, and that appears to be true for cosmic objects as well. Johanna Vos, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, will discuss a Spitzer survey published in the Astrophysical Journal that found higher variability in the weather on young brown dwarfs compared to old ones.

With regard to brown dwarfs, the word variability refers to short-term changes in the intensity of different wavelengths of infrared light coming from the object’s atmosphere. Astronomers think these variations are caused by clouds, which reflect and absorb light in the atmosphere.