Astronomers discover watery cloud-covered atmosphere around Neptune-sized exoplanet

Astronomers have identified a watery atmosphere containing clouds around an exoplanet first discovered in 2010.

The planet, HAT-P-26b, orbits a moderately bright dwarf star named GSC 0320-01027, and is a similar mass to Neptune. While such exoplanets have been discovered in large numbers – astronomers have discovered several thousand exoplanets to date – knowledge about what atmospheres they may or may not have remains relatively scarce.

As a result, the discovery of an atmosphere containing water around this otherwise unremarkable exoplanet is highly significant.

Not only does it allow astronomers to infer the proportion of certain elements in the atmosphere, but it also helps to further the understanding of how atmospheres vary across exoplanets of different sizes and allow researchers to hone their models for how planets form.

The atmosphere was in part discovered using observations made using the Hubble Space Telescope. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency

The atmosphere was discovered by a team of astronomers led by Hannah R Wakeford using six separate observations. Four were made recently using the Hubble Space Telescope, while two were previously made using the Spitzer Space Telescope.

The researchers were able to use the observations not only to determine that the planet has water in its atmosphere, but how much is present. This in turn allowed them to calculate the atmosphere’s metallicity: the proportion of elements in the atmosphere that are heavier than both hydrogen and helium.

In the case of HAT-P-26b, this number was lower than had been expected, based on what is known about other similarly-sized planets such Neptune and Uranus.

It is thought that the reason for this is that this exoplanet acquired an atmosphere later than usual, when it was reaching the end stages of it formation. This is because this low metallicity suggests the planet has not experienced any major impacts from debris such asteroids since its atmosphere formed.

Despite being considered ‘Neptune-sized’ the planet has a number of significant differences to Neptune/ Image courtesy of NASA

The discovery, which is detailed in a paper published today in the journal Science, is significant for the understanding Neptune-sized planets, both in our own solar system and beyond, which are highly abundant.

“Neptune-sized worlds are among the most common planets in our galaxy and frequently exist in orbital periods very different from that of our own Solar System ice giants,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “Atmospheric studies using transmission spectroscopy can be used to constrain their formation and evolution.”

Despite having a mass similar to Neptune, HAT-P-26b has a number of other differences to the Solar System’s eighth planet. It is, for example, almost twice the size of Neptune, despite being considered ‘Neptune-sized’ but has an orbit of just 4.23 days.

China planning to end sales of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles

Xin Guobin, China's vice minister of industry and information technology, has said the government is working with regulators to put in place a timetable to end the production and sale of cars powered by fossil fuels. It's hoped the move will accelerate the expansion of the electric car market.

Source: Bloomberg

Limited Tesla Autopilot was "partly to blame" for crash

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has found that Tesla's Autopilot system was partly to blame for a fatal accident in which a Model S collided with a lorry. The safety board concluded that Tesla allowed the driver to use the system outside of the environment for which it was designed,

Source: BBC

Chelsea Manning warns about the risks of AI

During a conversation at Noisebridge hackerspace, Chelsea Manning commented on some of the inherent risks of AI. "We’re now using huge datasets with all kinds of personal data, that we don’t even know what information we’re putting out there and what it’s getting collected for," Manning said.

Source: Ars Technica

US government bans Kaspersky software from its agencies

The Department of Homeland security has ordered government agencies to stop using software products made by Kaspersky Lab because of possible ties between Kaspersky officials and Russian intelligence. The process of discontinuing Kaspersky products is expected to begin within 90 days.

Source: Ars Technica

Hyperloop One selects ten possible routes for the first hyperloop

Hyperloop One has announced that it has selected ten proposed routes for the first hyperloop. The company also announced that it would “commit meaningful business and engineering resources and work closely with each of the winning teams/routes to determine their commercial viability”.

Source: Inverse

Artificial 'skin' gives robotic hand a sense of touch

A team of researchers from the University of Houston has reported a breakthrough in stretchable electronics that can serve as an artificial skin, allowing a robotic hand to sense the difference between hot and cold, while also offering advantages for a wide range of biomedical devices.

Source: Science Daily

The plan to make every surface inside the car of the future smart

Yanfeng Automotive Interiors (YFAI) has revealed a vision for the future of cars where every surface inside the vehicle can become a smart surface.

Launched at the International Auto Show, YFAI’s activeSkin concept will turn the largely decorative surfaces inside cars, including the door trim, floor console and instrument panel, into smart interior surfaces, which YFAI says will be “fully interactive” and could be ready by 2022.

“The future generation of surfaces will be smarter than ever. Just by passing your hand over a upholstered surface of the car will appear an interactive surface or dynamic decorative ambient light. Surfaces interact with us, “says Han Hendriks , YFAI’s chief technology officer.

“This technology is impressive.”

Images courtesy of YFAI

YFAI says its customisable 3D glass surfaces could benefit drivers by replacing some of the current operating elements in traditional cars.

However, If no information is called up by the driver, integrated screens and operating surfaces would remain invisible as purely decorative glass surfaces, so drivers would not be distracted by unnecessary information popping up.

“We offer on-demand functionality, so it will only be visible when you need it. In this way we will be able to customise features on interior surfaces,” said Hendriks. “With activeSkin we can achieve a 3D effect that gives a feeling of amazing depth.”

This isn’t the first time YFAI has tried to predict what cars of the future will be like.

The company’s XiM17 concept car was designed with autonomous driving in mind and helped answer the question, “What will people do in their vehicle, if they no longer have to drive?”

YFAI’s XiM17 allows passengers to switch between a number of different modes to allow passengers a number of different ways of engaging.

For example, in family mode all four seats in the car are positioned facing each other, whereas in meeting mode the rear seats are folded away. so that the driver and passenger seats face each other. and a floor console rises to form a desk.