Scientists found a weird-looking "hot Jupiter" exoplanet that takes on an oblong, comet-like orbit and absorbs massive amounts of energy from its star.
Before there were sophisticated telescopes that could observe cosmos beyond the solar system, scientists believed that the solar system is a blueprint of planetary systems in the universe.
The solar system consists of a Sun and planets orbiting in their own lanes. But in recent years, scientists from all over the world discovered thousands of planets outside of the solar system, dubbed exoplanets.
So far, scientists confirmed nearly 2,000 exoplanets and more than 5,000 are candidate exoplanets. Many of these exoplanets are categorized as "hot Jupiters".
Hot Jupiter exoplanets are gas giants with a size and composition similar to the solar system's own Jupiter. These planets' orbits take them close to their stars making them "hot".
"We thought our solar system was normal, but that's not so much the case," said Greg Laughlin, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.
In the study published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters, scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California at Santa Cruz, and Space Telescope Science observed an exoplanet named HD 80606b.
Using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, the scientists learned that the exoplanet is about the size of Jupiter, though four times massive and located in a planetary system 190 light-years from Earth.
Exoplanet Travels An Eccentric Orbit
The "hot Jupiter" is unique from other exoplanets observed by astronomers. It traverses a very eccentric orbit, because instead of following a circular path, it spends about 100 days of its year traveling on an oblong path.
It goes away from the star then back again, more like that of a comet. The exoplanet, however, comes too close to its star before swinging away again. In the process, it receives massive amounts of energy from the star, more than a thousand times the energy Earth receives from the Sun each day.
"As the planet gets closer to the star, it feels a burst of starlight. The atmosphere becomes a cauldron of chemical reactions, and the winds ramp up far beyond hurricane force. It's global warming gone nuts," Laughlin said.
If the Earth comes that close to the Sun, it will lose its atmosphere and the surface will turn into magma. This means that it could erase life on the planet.
What surprised the scientists is that, all the heat the exoplanet absorbed during its close encounter with the star dissipates rather quickly. Within just 10 hours of its close swing, HD 80606b cools down enough to disappear from the view of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.
Improved Spitzer Gave More Detailed Observations
"The Spitzer data are pristine and we were able to observe the planet for much longer this time, giving us more insight into its coldest temperature and how fast it heats up, cools down, and rotates," said lead author Julien de Wit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.
Spitzer observed HD 80606b in 2009 but the latest observations are more detailed and extensive because of longer observing time (85 hours) and improvements made to make the telescope more sensitive to exoplanets.