The data collected from the Kepler spacecraft is still producing spectacular results even after the spacecraft can no longer function in its exo-planet hunt.
One of the first five exo-planets discovered was Kepler-7b. Which was confirmed in a rather short 33.5 day period after it was declared a candidate.
Now, thanks to the data Kepler collected a team from the University of Bern, we have maps of the clouds swirling around a planet around a star over 2,000 light years away in the constellation Lyra.
So why Kepler-7b? It orbits its host star every five days at a distance of approximately 0.06 AU (closer than Mercury). But it is one unusual property of Kepler-7b, that caught the eye of exo-climatologists. Kepler-7b reflects about 50% of the visible light hitting its atmosphere.
Using Kepler data, the team measured the amount of reflected starlight for the entire orbit of Kepler-7b around its star to produce a “phase curve”. This is similar to how the shapes of asteroids are determined using light curves. The phase curve as transformed into a crude map (with only east-west information) of the reflectivity on Kepler-7b. The results implied the existence of clouds. There was sufficient data to even determine the size of particles in the clouds.
Of course, not everyone sees a silver lining concerning these clouds. Kevin Heng a team member involved in all three studies regarding the clouds around exo-planets said: “Clouds are a nuisance, because they hinder us from performing a unique interpretation of an exoplanet atmosphere.”
Of course, since he is really interested in finding signs of life on these exo-planets, I can understand his frustration. I feel the same way when I am trying to observe the night sky and clouds come rolling in to block my view. So all Kevin really needs to do is invent a cloud filter that can see through the obstructions. I’d buy one!
P.S. While doing research for this post, I came across an amazing resource for those of you interested in exo-planes. You can find all the information known about all the exo-planets discovered so far at the Open Exoplanet Catalogue. They even have animated orbital plots of the stars and the planets that orbit them. Also exoplanet apps for the tablet of your choice. Very nicely done.
– Ex astris, scientia –
I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California and I am a Rising Star as rated by Super Lawyers Magazine. As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +