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UW Faculty Member, Students Contribute to Paper on Newly Discovered ‘Hot’ Planet

June 5, 2017
artistic representation of a planet and a star
This artist’s rendering shows KELT-9b (red) and its larger host star, KELT 9. Hannah Jang-Condell, a UW assistant professor of physics and astronomy, contributed data to a paper, titled “A Giant Planet Undergoing Extreme Ultraviolet Irradiation By its Hot Massive-Star Host,” that appears in the June 5 issue (today) of Nature. (Courtesy of Ohio State University)

Hannah Jang-Condell, a University of Wyoming assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, helped discover a Jupiter-like world that is hotter than most stars.

The planet, dubbed “KELT-9b,” is more than 7,800 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than most stars, and only 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the sun. The gas giant, similar in temperature to red dwarf stars, is 2.8 times more massive than Jupiter. However, it is only half as dense because extreme radiation from KELT-9, its host star, has caused the gas giant to inflate like a balloon.

Jang-Condell says the discovery of this planet is significant for two reasons: One, it is one of the hottest, if not the hottest planets found; and, two, because the planet is orbiting only a short distance from the star. The planet orbits the star in 1 1/2 days.

“It’s typically been difficult to find planets around stars that hot,” she says. “This helps us understand planets around these more massive stars.”

A paper, titled “A Giant Planet Undergoing Extreme Ultraviolet Irradiation By its Hot Massive-Star Host,” appears in the June 5 issue (today) of Nature, an international weekly journal of science.

Jang-Condell and her students did not directly help write the paper, which included contributions from 47 universities and other organizations. Rather, they provided data for the publication. Tyler Ellis, who received his bachelor’s degree in astronomy and astrophysics at UW in 2015, and currently a graduate student at Louisiana State University, from Spokane, Wash.; UW graduate student David Kasper, of Waukesha, Wis.; and UW undergraduate students Rex Yeigh, of Buffalo, and Aman Kar, from Barrackpore, India, contributed by collecting data.

“I think it is really cool that exoplanets is this new field and we can have undergraduates in on this cutting-edge research,” Jang-Condell says.

At UW, Ellis says he was part of a small group of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates who collaborated as part of the Kilodegree Exoplanet Telescope (KELT) North team.

“KELT is a survey telescope which finds candidate host stars of exoplanets,” Ellis says. “These candidates are then followed up by collaborating members.”

Jang-Condell and her students use UW’s Red Buttes Observatory -- which was updated to operate semi-autonomously and remotely -- to monitor the stars’ brightness over many nights. KELT-9b, which is roughly 600 light years away from Earth, was spotted once, in 2015, at the observatory, Jang-Condell says.

“We saw it once, in transit, when the planet crosses the front of the star,” she says. “This causes a slight dip in the light in the star.”

Because KELT-9b is tidally locked to its star -- much like the moon is to Earth -- the day side of the planet is perpetually bombarded by stellar radiation. As a result, the planet is so hot that molecules, such as water, carbon dioxide and methane, cannot form there, according to the paper. The properties of the planet’s night side are less clear. Molecules may be able to form there but, if so, only temporarily.

The study was primarily funded by the National Science Foundation through various grants and a fellowship: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Exoplanet Exploration Program; the Harvard Future Faculty Leaders Postdoctoral Fellowship; Theodore Dunham Jr. Grant from the Fund for Astronomical Research; and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

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