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Exoplanets have unearthly light shows

Artist's concept of a 'hot Jupiter' planet

Artist's concept of a 'hot Jupiter' planet with two moons and a Sun-like star. The planet is cloaked in brilliant aurorae—100-1000 times brighter than Earth's—triggered by stellar storms.

BEINGS LIVING ON ‘HOT JUPITER’ PLANETS could be treated to a dazzling nightly light show a thousand times better than Earth’s Northern and Southern Lights.

Earth’s aurorae provide a dazzling light show to people living in the polar regions, with shimmering curtains of green and red undulating across the sky like a living creature.

But new research shows that aurorae on ‘hot Jupiter’ planets closely orbiting distant stars could be 100-1000 times brighter than Earthly aurorae. They also would ripple from equator to poles (due to the planet’s proximity to any stellar eruptions), treating the entire planet to an otherworldly spectacle.

“I’d love to get a reservation on a tour to see these aurorae!” said lead author Ofer Cohen, a SHINE-NSF postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics (CfA).

Gigantic stellar blasts

Earth’s aurorae are created when energetic particles from the Sun slam into our planet’s magnetic field. The field guides the particles toward the poles, where they smash into Earth’s atmosphere, causing air molecules to glow like a neon sign.

The same process can occur on planets orbiting distant stars, known as exoplanets.

Aurora Australis seen from the International Space Station

The Southern Lights or Aurora Australis seen from the International Space Station on July 14, 2011.

Particularly strong aurorae result when Earth is hit by a coronal mass ejection or CME—a gigantic blast that sends billions of tonnes of solar plasma (electrically charged, hot gas) into the Solar System.

A CME can disrupt Earth’s magnetosphere—the bubble of space protected by Earth’s magnetic field—causing a geomagnetic storm. In 1989, a CME hit Earth with such force that the resulting geomagnetic storm blacked out huge regions of Quebec.

Planets in the firing line

Cohen and his colleagues used computer models to study what would happen if a gas giant planet in a close orbit, just a few million kilometres from its star, were hit by a stellar eruption.

He wanted to learn the effect on the exoplanet’s atmosphere and surrounding magnetosphere.

The alien gas giant would be subjected to extreme forces. In our Solar System, a CME spreads out as it travels through space, so it’s more diffuse once it reaches us.

Aurora planet animation

In this animation, stunning aurorae (pink/purple) ripple around a 'hot Jupiter' planet.

A ‘hot Jupiter’ would feel a stronger and more focused blast, like the difference between being 100 kilometres from an erupting volcano or one kilometre away.

“The impact to the exoplanet would be completely different than what we see in our Solar System, and much more violent,” said co-author Vinay Kashyap of CfA.

Yet despite the extreme forces involved, the exoplanet’s magnetic field would shield its atmosphere from erosion.

Too close for comfort

This work has important implications for the habitability of rocky worlds orbiting distant stars. Since red dwarf stars are the most common stars in our galaxy, astronomers have suggested focusing on them in the search for Earth-like worlds.

However since a red dwarf is cooler than our Sun, a rocky planet would have to orbit very close to the star to be warm enough for water to exist as a liquid. There, it would be subjected to the sort of violent stellar eruptions Cohen and his colleagues studied.

Their future work will examine whether rocky worlds could shield themselves from such eruptions.

Adapted from information issued by the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. Images courtesy David A. Aguilar (CfA). Animation produced by Hyperspective Studios.

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