Bad news first: There is definitely no water on the distant planet WASP-18b. But the good news is that the planet's atmosphere keeps scientists alert, in fact, they say it does not look like anything they've seen before. Although the planet was first discovered in 2009, a team of astronomers is doing new research on its atmosphere and has published a new document on the subject in The Astrophysical Journal Letters .
"The composition of WASP-18b defies all expectations," lead author Kyle Sheppard, a doctoral student in astronomy at the University of Maryland, said in a news release. "We do not know of any other extrasolar planet where carbon monoxide completely dominates the upper atmosphere."
That news has led some to nickname WASP-18b the "planet of death" although it is not really more brutal than any other planet of its kind, which is known as a "hot Jupiter". In fact, it's not even more brutal than literally Jupiter and its neighbor Saturn, which vaporized a spacecraft in a matter of minutes earlier this year.
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WASP-18b, a so-called hot planet of Jupiter. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Most other Jupiter scientists that have been detected in other solar systems are brutal in a different way, with atmospheres that are typically full of chemical substances such as titanium oxide and vanadium oxide. And some of the team's results make sense for that model: they found indications that chemicals absorb sunlight in the upper atmosphere of WASP-18b, just like these chemicals.
But when scientists badyzed the light they saw from the planet, which is a disorderly mixture of information about all the chemicals that make it up, they realized that it did not look like any other planet that has been studied so far.
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Specifically, the models they used suggested that the atmosphere should basically contain carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and nothing else. And scientists knew that if Venus-like carbon dioxide was the culprit, there should have been enough oxygen in the atmosphere to produce water, which was nowhere to be seen.
A higher atmosphere that absorbs the sun and is composed of carbon monoxide, however, has never been seen before. "This rare combination of factors opens a new window in our understanding of physicochemical processes in exoplanetary atmospheres," Nikku Madhusudhan, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, said in the news release.
Fortunately for astronomers, the James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in 2019, should offer more information about WASP-18b and other exoplanets.