Astronomers discover possible ‘glory effect’ on a fiery distant planet

Credit: European Space Agency

Scientists may have spotted something truly extraordinary in the cosmos, a phenomenon known as the “glory effect” on a planet far beyond our solar system, specifically on the ultra-hot gas giant WASP-76b, located 637 light-years away.

The glory effect, resembling colorful concentric rings akin to rainbows, occurs under very specific conditions and has previously been observed on Earth and Venus.

However, this could be the first time it’s been detected on an exoplanet, offering new insights into the mysterious nature of these distant worlds.

The potential detection of this effect comes from data collected by the European Space Agency’s Cheops satellite, in collaboration with several other missions from ESA and NASA.

This discovery hinges on the unique atmospheric conditions of WASP-76b, an exoplanet where the differences between its scorching day side and its perpetually dark night side create an environment that could allow for the glory effect to manifest.

This effect is believed to occur when light reflects off clouds composed of uniform, spherical particles of an unknown substance.

The significance of this discovery lies not just in the novelty of finding a glory effect beyond our solar system but in what it reveals about the conditions on WASP-76b. For the glory effect to be observed, the planet’s atmosphere must contain particles that are nearly perfect spheres,

uniformly sized, and stable over time. The light from the planet’s nearby star must also strike these particles directly, with observers like Cheops positioned precisely to witness this reflection.

The researchers’ analysis suggests that the observed light increase from WASP-76b’s eastern terminator, the boundary between its day and night sides, could be due to a highly localized and directionally dependent reflection, possibly the glory effect.

This observation was made possible through a combination of 23 detailed observations over three years by Cheops and complementary data from NASA’s TESS mission, among others.

WASP-76b itself is a fascinating subject of study. Despite being less massive than Jupiter, it’s almost double its size and experiences extreme temperatures that can reach 2,400°C (4,352°F) on its day side.

This intense heat is so powerful that it vaporizes metals like iron, which then condense into clouds and precipitate as molten iron rain on the cooler night side. The detection of the glory effect could provide further insight into the atmospheric conditions and cloud composition on this extraordinary planet.

Confirming the presence of the glory effect on WASP-76b would be a milestone in exoplanetary research, demonstrating the ability to detect subtle atmospheric phenomena on planets hundreds of light-years away.

It could also pave the way for future discoveries, such as the reflection of light off liquid lakes and oceans on other planets, which is crucial for identifying potentially habitable worlds.

Further observations, possibly from the James Webb Space Telescope or the upcoming Ariel mission, are needed to confirm the glory effect on WASP-76b conclusively.

If verified, this discovery will not only add to our understanding of WASP-76b but also enhance our ability to study and interpret the atmospheres of other distant exoplanets, revealing more about the vast and varied universe beyond our solar system.

The research findings can be found in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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