'Warm Neptune' Has Unexpectedly Primitive Atmosphere

Astronomers have discovered that a Neptune-sized planet orbiting another star has an atmosphere containing water and clouds.

During their study of the distant planet, the team also assessed its metallicity, that is to say the extent to which it is composed of elements other than hydrogen and helium - anything heavier than helium being considered a metal in astronomical terms.

The exoplanet is located 437-light-years away from Earth and orbits a star which is nearly twice as old as Sun.

The recent analysis is one of the most detailed studies till date of a "warm Neptune" or a Neptune-sized planet and close to its star.

HAT-P-26b, which astronomers call a "warm Neptune", has a "primitive" atmosphere made nearly entirely of hydrogen and helium.

With the composition of a planet's atmosphere able provide valuable clues as to how it formed, the research team are hopeful their findings will contribute to better understanding of how atmospheric composition varies between exoplanets with different masses, and narrow down hypothetical models of planet formation.

"Warm Neptune" is an exoplanet, that is, a planet found outside of our solar system, situated 430 light years away from us; its real name is HAT-P-26b.

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"Astronomers have only begun to explore the atmospheres of these distant planets Naturopathy, and nearly immediately, we found an example that goes against the trend in our Solar system", says one of the researchers, Hannah, Oakford from the Center Goddard at NASA.

Data from transits - occasions when the planet passed in front of its host star - was used by the researchers to study HAT-P-26b. That allows astronomers to peek into the planet's atmosphere and analyze the light wavelengths that pass through the planet's atmosphere. By assessing the alterations in the starlight due to this filtering, the astronomers can find out the chemical composition of the planet's atmosphere. "And we didn't know before that you could form [such] planets in that region".

The scientists found that although HAT-P-26b is roughly as massive as Neptune, its metallicity is more similar to that of Jupiter.

"This analysis shows that there is a lot more diversity in the atmospheres of these exoplanets than we were expecting, which is providing insight into how planets can form and evolve differently than in our solar system", said co-author David K. Sing of the University of Exeter.

In our own solar system, Neptune and Uranus have much richer and greater heavy elements as compared to Jupiter and Saturn, which are mostly composed of hydrogen and helium. They determined its metallicity is only about 4.8 times that of the sun, much closer to the value for Jupiter than for Neptune.

Astronomers say that's because Neptune and Uranus formed on the colder part of the disk of debris that circled our sun as the planets developed.

In our solar system and two planets outside our solar system, the general trend observed among the gassy planets is that larger planets have smaller amounts of heavy elements.

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