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As a Jupiter-size world swings around its small but active star, bombarded by radiation, the planet leaves behind a tail of escaping helium as wide as itself — and researchers have spotted this tail from the ground, 163 light-years away.
Since scientists first found planets around other stars, many of their most striking discoveries have come from off-Earth instruments like NASA’s Kepler and Hubble space telescopes. Kepler has identified more than 2,000 verified planets passing by their stars, while Hubble observations have helped scientists characterize exoplanet atmospheres. But two new papers published today (Dec. 6) in the journal Science pinpoint the movement of helium in alien atmospheres from the comfort of our home planet.
Artist - Illustration - Planet - WASP-69b - Helium
Artist's illustration of the planet WASP-69b with a helium tail following behind it.
"This is the first time we can actually observe a helium tail," Lisa Nortmann, lead author on one of the new papers and a researcher at Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in Spain, told Space.com. In their new paper, Nortmann's group looked for helium in the outer atmospheres of multiple planets. And one, called WASP-69b, showed a particularly dramatic effect.
Helium - Outermost - Layer - Planet - Tail
"Before, it was assumed that if helium is in the [outermost atmospheric layer of a] planet, it might escape and form a tail. That was based on models, but this is the first time we can actually observe it while it's still in front of the star, when the planet is not in front of the star anymore," she said. Though WASP-69b is about the size of Jupiter, she said, it has the mass of Saturn, meaning it's lighter and fluffier than any of our solar system's planets.
The second group of researchers focused on a Neptune-size world, which shows an outer atmosphere full of speedy helium atoms being blasted away by the host star's high-energy radiation....
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