First Cloud Map of a Planet Beyond our Solar System

Kepler-7b (left), which is 1.5 times the radius of Jupiter (right), is the first exoplanet to have its clouds mapped. The cloud map was produced using data from NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MIT

After cataloging nearly a thousand worlds beyond our solar system, astronomers can now for the first time forecast cloudy skies on a distant exoplanet.

While the above image may not resemble a weather map, it shows a first look at clouds on a hot, Jupiter-like world dubbed Kepler 7b, which resides nearly 1000 light years away from Earth.

By combining three years worth of infrared and visual observations from NASA’s Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes,  a low -resolution map was stitched together showing high clouds in the gas giant’s western hemisphere. The planet’s eastern side sports clear skies, instead.

While a sticky gyroscope wheel has sidelined Kepler, it has banked four years of data on thousands of candidate planets still awaiting analysis. Kepler 7b was one of the first of more than 150 confirmed exoplanets that Kepler has discovered. Before it lost its bearings, the space telescope was able to see Kepler-7b undergoing phases changes like the waxing and waning of the moon and spy a mysterious bright spot on its western hemisphere. All of this was detected as the planet zipped around its parent star, circling it completely in just under 7 days.

Not able to tell if the bright spot was due to clouds or heat, astronomers swung Spitzer into action.  Spitzer measured the planet’s temperature, which led the astronomers to confirm that the source of light was due to its host star’s light bouncing off the cloud tops on its western sun-facing hemisphere.

“Kepler-7b reflects much more light than most giant planets we’ve found, which we attribute to clouds in the upper atmosphere,” said Thomas Barclay, Kepler scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in a press release.

“Unlike those on Earth, the cloud patterns on this planet do not seem to change much over time — it has a remarkably stable climate.” Hopes are that this same observation techniques can be applied to smaller, more Earth-like worlds.


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Changing Planet

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.