The dry furnace of Arizona or the wet heat of Florida. Hot is hot. But these corners of the U.S. have nothing on an alien planet situated 1,000 light years away. Dubbed HAT-P-7b, the planet is a gas giant 40% larger than Jupiter. And its swirling winds are likely made up of corundum, the mineral making up rubies and sapphires.
Researchers from the University of Warwick tapped NASA’s Kepler satellite to make the first of its kind discovery – weather patterns on a gas giant outside our solar system. All made possible by keeping tabs on the light reflecting from the atmosphere of HAT-P-7b.
Dr. David Armstrong and his fellow researchers noticed the brightest point of the planet would move around. The researchers point to an equatorial jet with big differences in wind speeds as the culprit. It’s pushing large swaths of clouds across the planet’s face.
“These results show that strong winds circle the planet, transporting clouds from the night side to the dayside,” says Armstrong. “The winds change speed dramatically, leading to huge cloud formations building up then dying away. This is the first detection of weather on a gas giant planet outside the solar system.”
Researchers believe catastrophic storms regularly form on the planet. The storm formation is similar in ways to Earth. I live in Alabama and what most people don’t realize is we have a secondary tornado season in November/December. When warm, moist air collides with arctic cold air – massive thunderstorms can fire off. A temperature difference on a much larger scale is going on with HAT-P-7b.
This gas giant is tidally locked. Just like the moon is to Earth. That means one side is always facing its star, while the other sits in constant darkness. The day side sees average temps of 4,450 degrees Fahrenheit as HAT-P-7b circles its star every two Earth days.
While clouds on Earth are made up of small particles and water, the scorching temps on HAT-P-7b point to a more exotic origin. Researchers suggest corundum could be the answer. But, they’ll never know for sure. You can’t exactly figure out the exact makeup of clouds on a planet located 1,000 light-years away. But the vast distances don’t mean we can’t see something new.
Any planet with an atmosphere will theoretically have weather. HAT-P-7b just happens to be the first one researchers can definitively observe.
As for the possibility of life? That’s a no-go. Tidally locked planets don’t make good candidates for life. One half burns while the other half freezes. Any potential life will have to evolve in a narrow strip where the day and night sides meet. Even then, it will have to contend with vast amounts of solar radiation from being too close to its host star.
Bottom line: the chances of life around tidally locked planets are extremely slim.
Researchers can continue watching HAT-P-7b and see how weather changes over time. At least, how it changed 1,000 years ago.