Magnetism disrupts winds on ‘hot Jupiter’ exoplanet

Simulations of HAT-P 7b’s magnetic field give clues to the world’s variable gusts

simulation of magnetic fields on HAT-P 7b

COLORED LINES  In this simulation of HAT-P 7b’s magnetic field lines, strong lines are shown in blue and magenta. Weaker lines are green and yellow. These magnetic field lines influence winds on the distant world, making them blow both east and west, a new study says. The stronger the lines, the wilder the winds.

T.M. Rogers/Nature Astronomy 2017

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HAT-P 7b is a windy world. Stiff easterlies typically whip through the atmosphere of the distant exoplanet, but sometimes the powerful gales blow in surprisingly varied directions. Now, simulations of the planet’s magnetic field lines, illustrated here as a rainbow of scrawled marks, reveal that HAT-P 7b’s magnetic field influences the winds, even turning some into westerlies. The result, published May 15 in Nature Astronomy, could lead to a better understanding of the atmospheres of other exoplanets.

Known as a “hot Jupiter,” HAT-P 7b is a gas giant that orbits its star once every 2.2 Earth days. The exoplanet, located 1,043 light-years away, is also tidally locked: One side always faces toward its star while the other faces away. That orientation pushes temperatures to about 1,900° Celsius on the planet’s dayside compared with about 900° C on the nightside. Those extreme temperature differences tend to power strong easterly winds, according to an analysis of data from the Kepler satellite. But that analysis also revealed that over time the winds are surprisingly mercurial.

The magnetic field, which may be generated by the planet’s core, is connected to the winds because of high temperatures stripping electrons from atmospheric atoms of lithium, sodium and potassium, making them positively charged. Those particles then interact with the field, creating an electromagnetic force strong enough to disrupt the stout easterly winds, writes study author Tamara Rogers, an astrophysicist at Newcastle University in England.

In the image above, blue lines track strong magnetic field lines directed one way, while those in magenta trace powerful lines in the opposite direction. Weaker parts of the field lines are shown in green and yellow. The stronger the magnetic field, the wilder the winds — with the strongest lines completely reversing the direction the winds blow, Rogers concludes.

THERE THEY BLOW This video shows simulations of HAT-P 7b’s magnetic field lines, which influence how winds blow on the exoplanet. Over time, the lines evolve, changing strength and direction. T.M. Rogers/Nature Astronomy 2017

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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