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March 12, 2021 Friday 02:04:19 PM IST

Hubble sees new atmosphere forming on a rocky exoplanet

For the first time, scientists using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have found evidence of volcanic activity reforming the atmosphere on a rocky planet around a distant star. The planet, GJ 1132 b, has a similar density, size, and age to Earth.

The planet GJ 1132 b appears to have begun life as a gaseous world with a thick blanket of atmosphere. Starting out at several times the radius of Earth, this ‘sub-Neptune’ quickly lost its primordial hydrogen and helium atmosphere, which was stripped away by the intense radiation from its hot, young star. In a short period of time, it was reduced to a bare core about the size of Earth.

To the surprise of astronomers, new observations from Hubble have uncovered a secondary atmosphere that has replaced the planet’s first atmosphere. It is rich in hydrogen, hydrogen cyanide, methane and ammonia, and also has a hydrocarbon haze. Astronomers theorise that hydrogen from the original atmosphere was absorbed into the planet’s molten magma mantle and is now being slowly released by volcanism to form a new atmosphere. This second atmosphere, which continues to leak away into space, is continually being replenished from the reservoir of hydrogen in the mantle’s magma.

In some ways, GJ 1132 b has various parallels to Earth, but in some ways, it is also very different. Both have similar densities, similar sizes, and similar ages, being about 4.5 billion years old. Both started with a hydrogen-dominated atmosphere, and both were hot before they cooled down. The team’s work even suggests that GJ 1132 b and Earth have similar atmospheric pressure at the surface.

However, the planets’ formation histories are profoundly different. Earth is not believed to be the surviving core of a sub-Neptune. And Earth orbits at a comfortable distance from our yellow dwarf Sun. GJ 1132 b is so close to its host red dwarf star that it completes an orbit the star once every day and a half. This extremely close proximity keeps GJ 1132 b tidally locked, showing the same face to its star at all times — just as our moon keeps one hemisphere permanently facing Earth.

The phenomenon of tidal heating occurs through friction, when energy from a planet’s orbit and rotation is dispersed as heat inside the planet. GJ 1132 b is in an elliptical orbit, and the tidal forces acting on it are strongest when it is closest to or farthest from its host star. At least one other planet in the host star’s system also exerts a gravitational pull on the planet. The consequences are that the planet is squeezed or stretched by this gravitational “pumping.” That tidal heating keeps the mantle liquid for a long time. A nearby example in our own Solar System is the Jovian moon, Io, which has continuous volcanism as a result of a tidal tug-of-war between Jupiter and the neighbouring Jovian moons.

The team believes the crust of GJ 1132 b is extremely thin, perhaps only hundreds of feet thick. That’s much too feeble to support anything resembling volcanic mountains. Its flat terrain may also be cracked like an eggshell by tidal flexing. Hydrogen and other gases could be released through such cracks.