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The heaviest element found in an exoplanet atmosphere has been discovered by astronomers

By: April Carson

When astronomers looked more closely at the atmospheres of two exoplanets, they found an unexpected chemical element high up in the atmosphere. This new discovery suggests that liquid iron and gems may be raining down from the skies on these sizzling planets.

Astronomers from the European Southern Observatory have detected barium in the atmospheres of two ultrahot gas giants, WASP-76b and WASP-121b. These exoplanets orbit separate stars beyond our solar system. The astronomers used high powered telescopes to make this discovery.

The journal Astronomy & Astrophysics published a study last Thursday detailing the discovery of barium, the heaviest element ever discovered within the atmosphere of an exoplanet.

As more discoveries are made, WASP-76b and WASP-121b become increasingly strange to scientists.

"We are very excited about this discovery," study author and astronomer David Ehrenreich of the University of Geneva said in a statement. "It opens up interesting perspectives for the study of these strange worlds."

The astronomers used the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument on ESO's 3.6-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile to study two exoplanets, WASP-76b and WASP-121b. They found that both planets had atmospheres containing barium.

WASP-76b is an ultrahot Jupiter, meaning it is a gas giant with temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius. WASP-121b, on the other hand, is a "puffy" planet with temperatures reaching 2,500 degrees Celsius.

Azevedo Silva, the lead study author and a doctoral student at the University of Porto and the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences in Portugal, said: “The puzzling and counterintuitive part is: why is there such a heavy element in the upper layers of the atmosphere of these planets?”

"It was almost as if we had serendipitously discovered barium. We weren't deliberately looking or expecting to find it, and yet there it was. It's strange because this is the first time that barium has been seen in an exoplanet."

The answer may lie in the fact that KELT-9b is a "hot Jupiter" - a gas giant that orbits very close to its star.

Not only are both exoplanets a similar size to Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, but their surface temperatures also exceed 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius). WASP-76b and WASP-121b's high temperatures result from each being located close to its host star; thus completing an orbit in one or two days.

WASP-121b was first discovered in 2015, and it is about 855 light-years from Earth. The exoplanet has a water vapor atmosphere that makes it look as if it's glowing, and the intense gravitational pull of the star it orbits is deforming its shape into something resembling a football.

The planet is tidally locked to the star, meaning that one side of the planet always faces it. This is akin to how our moon orbits Earth. On the dayside, temperatures start at 4,040 F (2,227 C) in the deepest layer of atmosphere and reach 5,840 F (3,227 C) in shallower layers.

Scientists discovered WASP-76b in 2016. It is 640 light-years from Earth and revolves around a star located in the Pisces constellation . Because it is tidally locked, one side of the exoplanet perpetually faces the star resulting in scorching temperatures that exceed 4,400F (2,426C) on its dayside.

The exoplanets' sizzling temperatures result in some pretty wild weather conditions, according to scientists.liquid iron apparently rains down from the sky on WASP-76b, while metal clouds and liquid gems form on WASP=121b. All of this begs the question: what will we find next?

The element barium, 2 1/2 times heavier than iron, was found in the upper atmosphere of each planet--a surprise to researchers.

The gravity of the planets pulls elements like barium down into lower layers of atmosphere, said study coauthor Olivier Demangeon, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Porto and the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences in Portugal.

But the elements on WASP-76b and WASP-121b are "so hot they can actually float in the upper layers of the atmosphere," Demangeon told Live Science.

In addition to barium, researchers found evidence of titanium oxide and vanadium oxide on WASP-121b, as well as iron vapor on both planets.

The presence of barium in the atmospheres of both exoplanets might suggest that ultrahot gas giants have more strange features than initially thought.

When fireworks explode on Earth, the barium they contain creates a stunning green hue in the night sky. However, researchers are unsure what process is taking place on gas giants that allow the heavy element to rise so high in their atmospheres.

The research team used the ESPRESSO instrument, or Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations. This study was done by using starlight as it passed through the atmosphere of each planet, which allowed them to examine these worlds in greater detail.

The results revealed that the heavy element barium is present in the atmospheres of KELT-9b and WASP-121b, two ultrahot gas giants. Barium has a boiling point of 2,000 degrees Celsius, making it one of the heaviest elements found in an exoplanet atmosphere.

According to Demangeon, "The atmospheres of gas giants are large and hot, making them much easier to study than those of smaller or cooler planets."

With upcoming advances in technology, telescopes will be able to see further into the atmospheres of exoplanets. By being able to study different layers, including those of rocky planets like Earth, we can begin to understand the strange worlds throughout our galaxy.

The discovery of the heaviest element in an exoplanet atmosphere is a step towards learning about the make-up of these distant worlds. It also helps us to understand how planets form and evolve over time.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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