Scientists at NASA JPL are creating alien atmospheres to better understand distant exoplanets. The space agency detailed part of this project, which involves using a special type of ‘oven’ to heat a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas, simulating the very high temperatures on giant gas exoplanets. Using the simulated atmosphere, researchers are able to study environments and learn things about the planets.
Exoplanets — that is, planets located outside of our solar system — include a class of celestial bodies called ‘hot Jupiters,’ which are gas giants orbiting close to their parent star. This close proximity results in very short orbits and very high temperatures, some of them reaching or exceeding 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
That exceedingly high temperature presents atmospheres beyond what we have access to in our own solar system, leaving scientists to use simulated models as part of their research. The team cautions that they aren’t able to exactly simulate the atmospheres of these gas giants, but they can come very close using a simple chemical mixture.
To start with, according to NASA, the JPL researchers used mostly hydrogen gas with a small amount of carbon monoxide mixed in. This mixture was heated to temperatures up to 2240 degrees Fahrenheit, then exposed to a large dose of ultraviolet radiation. This helps simulate the radiation a gas giant exoplanet would experience due to the close orbit with its parent star.
The team has already made some discoveries about these atmospheres as part of their work, including the production of large amounts of carbon dioxide and water, as well as details about these planets’ opaque atmospheres. Talking about the findings was study co-author and JPL exoplanet scientist Mark Swain, who said:
These new results are immediately useful for interpreting what we see in hot Jupiter atmospheres. We’ve assumed that temperature dominates the chemistry in these atmospheres, but this shows we need to look at how radiation plays a role.