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.

School will use facial analysis to identify students who are dozing off

In September the ESG business school in Paris will begin using artificial intelligence and facial analysis to determine whether students are paying attention in class. The school says the technology will be used to improve performance of students and professors.

Source: The Verge

Company offers free training for coal miners to become wind farmers

A Chinese wind-turbine maker wants American workers to retrain and become wind farmers. The training program was announced at an energy conference in Wyoming, where the American arm of Goldwind, a Chinese wind-turbine manufacturer is located.

Source: Quartz

Google AI defeats human Go champion

Google's DeepMind AI AlphaGo has defeated the world's number one Go player Ke Jie. AlphaGo secured the victory after winning the second game in a three-part match. DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis said Ke Jie "pushed AlphaGo right to the limit".

Source: BBC

Vegan burgers that taste like real meat to hit Safeway stores

Beyond Meat, which promises its plant-based burgers bleed and sizzle like real ground beef and is backed by investors like Bill Gates, will begin distributing its plant-based burgers in more than 280 Safeway stores in California, Hawaii and Nevada.

Source: Bloomberg

The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation

Brain cells that destroy and digest worn-out cells and debris go into overdrive in mice that are chronically sleep-deprived. The discovery could explain why a chronic lack of sleep puts people at risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

Source: New Scientist

"We can still act and it won’t be too late," says Obama

Former US President Barack Obama has written an op-ed piece in the Guardian giving his views on some of the greatest challenges facing the world – food and climate change – and what we can do about them. "We can still act and it won’t be too late," writes Obama.

Source: The Guardian

Juno mission: Jupiter’s magnetic field is even weirder than expected

It has long been known that Jupiter has the most intense magnetic field in the solar system, but the first round of results from NASA’s Juno mission has revealed that it is far stronger and more misshapen than scientists predicted.

Announcing the findings of the spacecraft’s first data-collection pass, which saw Juno fly within 2,600 miles (4,200km) of Jupiter on 27th August 2016, NASA mission scientists revealed that the planet far surpassed the expectations of models.

Measuring Jupiter’s magnetosphere using Juno’s magnetometer investigation (MAG) tool, they found that the planet’s magnetic field is even stronger than models predicted, at 7.766 Gaus: 10 times stronger than the strongest fields on Earth.

Furthermore, it is far more irregular in shape, prompting a re-think about how it could be generated.

“Juno is giving us a view of the magnetic field close to Jupiter that we’ve never had before,” said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator and magnetic field investigation lead at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“Already we see that the magnetic field looks lumpy: it is stronger in some places and weaker in others.

An enhanced colour view of Jupiter’s south pole. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gabriel Fiset. Featured image courtesy of NASA/SWRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran

At present, scientists cannot say for certain why or how Jupiter’s magnetic field is so peculiar, but they do already have a theory: that the field is not generated from the planet’s core, but in a layer closer to its surface.

“This uneven distribution suggests that the field might be generated by dynamo action closer to the surface, above the layer of metallic hydrogen,” said Connerney.

However, with many more flybys planned, the scientists will considerable opportunities to learn more about this phenomenon, and more accurately pinpoint the bizarre magnetic field’s cause.

“Every flyby we execute gets us closer to determining where and how Jupiter’s dynamo works,” added Connerney.

With each flyby, which occurs every 53 days, the scientists are treated to a 6MB haul of newly collected information, which takes around 1.5 days to transfer back to Earth.

“Every 53 days, we go screaming by Jupiter, get doused by a fire hose of Jovian science, and there is always something new,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

A newly released image of Jupiter’s stormy south pole. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

An unexpected magnetic field was not the only surprise from the first data haul. The mission also provided a first-look at Jupiter’s poles, which are unexpectedly covered in swirling, densely clustered storms the size of Earth.

“We’re puzzled as to how they could be formed, how stable the configuration is, and why Jupiter’s north pole doesn’t look like the south pole,” said Bolton. “We’re questioning whether this is a dynamic system, and are we seeing just one stage, and over the next year, we’re going to watch it disappear, or is this a stable configuration and these storms are circulating around one another?”

Juno’s Microwave Radiometer (MWR) also threw up some surprises, with some of the planet’s belts appearing to penetrate down to its surface, while others seem to evolve into other structures. It’s a curious phenomenon, and one which the scientists hope to better explore on future flybys.

“On our next flyby on July 11, we will fly directly over one of the most iconic features in the entire solar system – one that every school kid knows – Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Bolton.

“If anybody is going to get to the bottom of what is going on below those mammoth swirling crimson cloud tops, it’s Juno and her cloud-piercing science instruments.”