A Place To Visit In Space: HD 80606b

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Pablo Edronkin

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Planet HD 80606b would be an exciting place to visit once adequate propulsion systems like the Warp engine envisioned by Dr. Alcubierre comes into existence; the reason is that this planet is the celestial body that has the most violent atmospheric storms ever detected, according to a paper recently published in Nature magazine.

Astronomy and astrophysics are advancing in giant leaps these days and hundreds of planets outside our own solar system have been detected with new instrumentation, methods and software. Detection is not only possible but actual analysis of the planet's physical characteristics as well. This is what happens in the case of HD 80606b, a planet about three times more massive than Jupiter orbiting the star of the same name - without the "b", that is HD 80606 -, that lies on the Ursa Major Constellation, about 190 light years away from us. However, far doesn't mean unobservable and scientists have been to take a peek at very curious things that happen there: HD 80606b has the most elyptical orbit of all known celestial bodies found so far, and this puts it at its periapsis at a very short distance from its own sun, just about 0,03 AU or astronomical units, while at its apoapsis, where the planet reaches its farthest distance it goes as far as 115 million kilometres. A whole orbit takes 111,4 days and be able to grasp the magnitude and oddity of this planetary case, just consider that one AU is equivalent to the average distance between our sun and Earth, and that equals to 8,2 light minutes while light moves at about 300.000 kilometres per second. Doing a little math you would be able to see what HD 80606b orbital behaviour is about.

As this planet approaches it sun it begins to accelerate and passes its periapsis at a very high speed; as it leaves on the other side, it starts to decelerate. This means that the planet's atmosphere - it is known to have one - suffers quick and intense changes in temperature: At its periapsis, it receives a about a thousand more heat than at its apoapsis. Just think that if the average temperature in winter in certain locations of Earth during the winter is about one degree Celsius, this would translate to about one thousand degrees during the summer.

Thanks to the Spitzer telescope, scientists were able to make observations and calculate what happens there each time the planet gets so close to its sun: The whole thing starts warming up exceedingly fast and its atmosphere, absorbing heat expands. This produces winds, but not like the ones we know here: The way and speed in which this heat passes into the dark side of the planet indicates that those winds should be counted in the "hypercane" class, for they must attain speeds of several kilometres per second in order to transmit the heat to the other side at speeds compatible with the heat propagation phenomenon that was observed. And thanks to simulations software and all the data gathered, meteorologists were able to even produce a simulated atmospheric model of HD 80606b, turning it into the first exoplanet to have a map of its own.

Sounds tempting, but we will have to wait a little more until technology develops the necessary means to get there and explore.


"Rapid Heating Of The Atmosphere Of An Extrasolar Planet" - Gregory Laughlin, Drake Deming, Jonathan Langton, Daniel Kasen, Steve Vogt, Paul Butler, Eugenio Rivera & Stefano Meschiari - Nature - 457, 562-564 (2009.)

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