Hot dust clouds with a chance of molten iron rain in far-off world

PSO J318.5-22
© Artist's impression of PSO J318.5-22/MPIA/V.Ch.Quetz

Researchers study weather patterns for Jupiter-sized object 75 light years away.

The challenges of forecasting weather on our little blue orb are tricky enough, but what happens when scientists set their sights farther abroad? Like, 75 light years away?

A team of researchers led by the University of Edinburgh put a telescope in Chile to use in studying the weather systems of a planet-like object known affectionately as PSO J318.5-22.

They captured hundreds of infrared images of the 20-million year old object as it rotated over a 5-hour period. Their research reveals that the far-away world is swathed in multiple layers of thick and thin dust clouds with droplets of molten iron. These cause changes to the brightness of the distant world as it rotates, the team says. They estimate that temperatures inside the clouds exceed a balmy 1475 degrees F (800 degrees C).

Because PSO J318.5-22 does not circle around a star, they were able to accurately measure changes in brightness in comparison to neighboring objects. The astronomers hope to adapt the technique to examine planets that do orbit stars, which could possibly be used to look at cooler planets that are more likely able to support life.

"This discovery shows just how ubiquitous clouds are in planets and planet-like objects,” says leader of the study, Dr. Beth Biller. “We're working on extending this technique to giant planets around young stars, and eventually we hope to detect weather in Earth-like exoplanets that may harbor life."

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