Astronomers create first cloud map of an exoplanet

Credit: NASA

NASA’s Kepler Mission to search for exoplanets may be doomed, but thanks to the wealth of data that the telescope has collected, it’s certain to keep scientists busy for a good long time. Recently, those scientists used some of these data, along with data from the Spitzer telescopes, to create a cloud map of Kepler 7b, a planet outside of our solar system.

Kepler 7b was discovered by the Kepler Mission in 2010. Similar to Jupiter, it is a huge gaseous planet with an extremely low density. After collecting data about the planet, astronomers created a preliminary map of the atmosphere that showed a bright reflection of light on its western half. Because they were unsure if this brightness represented clouds or heat, they also examined information from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Spitzer is similar to Kepler in that it looks at a small part of the sky and searches for planets that orbit stars, but it includes infrared detectors, so it can measure the temperature of a planet. Spitzer’s data showed that the temperature of Kepler 7b is relatively low, leading scientists to believe that the bright light on its western half are clouds.

The hope is to use similar techniques to study planets that are more Earth-like. Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington said:

"With Spitzer and Kepler together, we have a multi-wavelength tool for getting a good look at planets that are trillions of miles away. We’re at a point now in exoplanet science where we are moving beyond just detecting exoplanets, and into the exciting science of understanding them.”

Before its recent technical problems, Kepler has discovered more than 900 planets outside of our solar system. Now, we can figure out which ones really are more like our own home planet of Earth.

Via NASA (Website is currently offline due to governmental shutdown)


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