Though much of the agency is preparing to shut down, NASA this week announced that astronomers have mapped the clouds of a planet outside our own solar system. Using the Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes, astronomers have created a cloud map of Kepler-7b, a Jupiter-like planet that orbits around the star Kepler-7.
Though Kepler-7b has less than half the mass of Jupiter, the planet is nearly 50% larger than our local large gas giant. NASA researchers gazed at Kepler-7b for years to determine that the planet has high clouds on its western hemisphere and little cloud cover on its eastern side. A new paper on the findings is set to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
"By observing this planet with Spitzer and Kepler for more than three years, we were able to produce a very low-resolution 'map' of this giant, gaseous planet," said Brice-Olivier Demory, lead author of the paper and an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We wouldn't expect to see oceans or continents on this type of world, but we detected a clear, reflective signature that we interpreted as clouds."
Astronomers using the Kepler telescope were able to determine that Kepler-7b had a bright spot on its western side. A follow-up with the Spitzer telescope revealed that the planet was too cool for the bright spot to be heat, meaning it came from light reflected from Kepler-7. NASA believes the technique might help researchers in the future examine the atmospheres of other exoplanets closer in make-up to Earth.
"With Spitzer and Kepler together, we have a multi-wavelength tool for getting a good look at planets that are trillions of miles away," said Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at NASA. "We're at a point now in exoplanet science where we are moving beyond just detecting exoplanets, and into the exciting science of understanding them."