Science

Newly Discovered Planet Looks Like A Helium Balloon

Newly Discovered Planet Helium Balloon
Image Credit: Denis Bajram

Kids enjoy holding helium balloons at parties, while those a little older like to inhale the helium from the balloons and laugh at how their voice changes from the gas. A newly discovered planet has been found to be full of helium in its atmosphere. Moreover, it is inflated to look like a helium balloon.

While exploring space outside our solar system, an international team of scientists led by Jessica Spake and Dr. David Sing from the University of Exeter stumbled across an exoplanet with an inert gas that escapes its atmosphere. The helium balloon planet is known as HAT-P-11b and can be found 124 light years away from Earth, residing in the Cygnus constellation. The research team also collaborated with researchers from the University of Geneva who used the spectrograph called Carmenes to observe the newly discovered planet.

The data from the spectrograph revealed the speed of helium atoms which move in the upper atmosphere of the planet, the size of our Neptune. The helium appears as an extended cloud escaping from the exoplanet. The breakthrough discovery may help scientists understand different conditions found in different exoplanets, especially those with a remarkably hot atmosphere.

Their paper was published in the journal Science, on Dec. 6.

“This is a really exciting discovery, particularly as helium was only detected in exoplanet atmospheres for the first time earlier this year. The observations show helium being blasted away from the planet by radiation from its host star,” Spake said in a statement.”  Hopefully we can use this new study to learn what types of planets have large envelopes of hydrogen and helium, and how long they can hold the gases in their atmospheres.”

Helium as an element was initially discovered by a Devon-based astronomer Norman Lockyer who found a yellow spectral line in sunlight in 1868. He suggested that the line belonged to a unique chemical element and was named after the Greek Titan of the Sun, Helios. Later, Helium was found to be one of the main components of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. In addition to that, Helium is the second most common element in the universe. It was successfully found in the atmosphere of an exoplanet earlier this year, in another study led by Jessica Spake.

The new findings of the helium balloon-like newly discovered planet were also supported by a computer simulation created by Vincent Bourrier, co-author of the study and a member of the European project FOUR ACES. The model watches and tracks the trajectory of helium atoms.

“Helium is blown away from the day side of the planet to its night side at over 10,000 km an hour. Because it is such a light gas, it escapes easily from the attraction of the planet and forms an extended cloud all around it,” Vincent Bourrier explained.

This phenomenon explained by Bourrier is why HAT-P-11b looks like a helium balloon.

These studies can be used for future research of extreme conditions on different exoplanets and with the right equipment and telescopes, will hopefully open up new breakthrough discoveries.