Exoplanets with iron and titanium detected for first time

For the first time in history astronomers have observed exoplanets that have iron and titanium in their atmosphere.
By Joseph Scalise | Aug 17, 2018
A team of international astronomers have found a planet 600 light-years from Earth that has both iron and titanium atoms in its atmosphere, according to new research published in the journalNature.

The body -- known as KELT-9b -- is a world that is nothing like any of the planets in our solar system. It is 2.88 times the mass of Jupiter, temperatures that reach over 6,740 Fahrenheit, and a year lasts 1.5 Earth days.

Not only is it the hottest exoplanet known to science, but it is also the first one on record to have iron and titanium atoms. As a result, scientists believe it could be a step towards properly characterizing the atmospheres of potentially habitable worlds.

"It's hard to distinguish an exoplanet like Venus from an exoplanet like Earth," lead author Jens Hoeijmakers, a researcher from the University of Geneva in Switzerland, told Gizmodo. "We need to recognize the chemistry in the atmospheres of exoplanets. KELT-9b is an easy target, an easy system to understand. My philosophy is if you cannot do the easy cases, then you cannot do the hard cases either."

The team made the new discovery by analyzing data from the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo, which recorded the planet as it passed in front of its host star.

That allowed researchers to observe spectral lines of both iron and titanium. In addition, the team also detected a slight shift to the spectral wavelengths. That is important because it shows the lines did not come from the star or dust. They came from the planet.

Though iron is plentiful on Earth, it is extremely hard to detect on distant planets because of its unique optical properties. This is the first time scientists have found an iron or titanium atom on an exoplanet.

Such readings are important because being able to fully understand an exoplanet's atmosphere could help researchers figure out what worlds are most likely to host life.

"[T]he same exact technique...can be used to detect molecules interesting for biology in a future, yet-to-be-discovered exoplanet," said study co-author Kevin Heng, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Bern, according to Popular Science."You can say that hot exoplanets are a training ground for us to hone our techniques and prepare for the exciting targets to emerge in the coming decade."

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