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Cloud map of planet beyond the solar system

City News Service | 10/1/2013, 10:01 a.m.
Astronomers using data from NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes have created the first cloud map of a planet beyond ...
Kepler-7b (left), which is 1.5 times the radius of Jupiter (right), is the first exoplanet to have its clouds mapped. The cloud map was produced using data from NASA's Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MIT

Astronomers using data from NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes have created the first cloud map of a planet beyond the solar system, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced today.

The planet, Kepler-7b, is reminiscent of Jupiter and marked by high clouds in the west and clear skies in the east, according to Brice-Olivier Demory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the lead author of a paper on the map accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“By observing this planet with Spitzer and Kepler for more than three years, we were able to produce a very low-resolution ‘map’ of this giant, gaseous planet,” Demory said.

“We wouldn’t expect to see oceans or continents on this type of world, but we detected a clear, reflective signature that we interpreted as clouds.”

The findings are an early step toward using similar techniques to study the atmospheres of planets more like Earth in composition and size, according to Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division.

“With Spitzer and Kepler together, we have a multi-wavelength tool for getting a good look at planets that are trillions of miles away,” Hertz said.

“We’re at a point now in exoplanet science where we are moving beyond just detecting exoplanets, and into the exciting science of understanding them.”

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Spitzer Space Telescope Mission.