Led by researchers from Université de Montréal’s Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx), a team of astronomers has harnessed the power of the revolutionary James Webb Space Webb Telescope (JWST) to study the “hot Saturn” exoplanet HAT-P-18 b.
Their findings, published last month in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, paint a complete picture of the HAT-P-18 b’s atmosphere while exploring the great challenge of distinguishing its atmospheric signals from the activity of its star.
HAT-P-18 b is located over 500 light-years away with a mass similar to Saturn’s but a size closer to that the larger planet Jupiter. As a result, the exoplanet has a “puffed-up” atmosphere that is especially ideal for analysis.
Passing over a spotted star
Observations from the JWST were taken while the HAT-P-18 b was passing in front of its Sun-like star. This moment is called a transit and is crucial to detect and further characterise an exoplanet from hundreds of light-years away with surprising precision.
Astronomers don’t observe light that is being emitted directly by the distant planet. Rather, they study how the central star’s light is being blocked and affected by the planet orbiting it, and so must try to disentangle signals caused by the presence of the planet from those caused by the star’s own properties.
Just like our Sun, stars do not have uniform surfaces. They can have dark star spots and bright regions, which can create signals that mimic a planet’s atmospheric attributes. A recent study of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1 b and its star TRAPPIST-1 led by UdeM doctoral student Olivia Lim witnessed an eruption, or flare, on the surface of the star, which affected observations.
In the case of planet HAT-P-18 b, Webb caught the exoplanet right as it was passing over a dark spot on its star, HAT-P-18. This is called a spot-crossing event, and its effect was evident in the data collected for the new study. The iREx team also reported the…