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Astronomers create first cloud map of distant planet

Oct. 1, 2013 at 4:05 PM   |   Comments

PASADENA, Calif., Oct. 1 (UPI) -- U.S. astronomers say data from NASA space telescopes have allowed them to create the first cloud map of a planet beyond our solar system.

The cloud map of Kepler-76, a hot, Jupiter-sized planet, was built up from observations by the Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., reported Monday.

"By observing this planet with Spitzer and Kepler for more than three years, we were able to produce a very low-resolution 'map' of this giant, gaseous planet," study lead author Brice-Olivier Demory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said. "We wouldn't expect to see oceans or continents on this type of world, but we detected a clear, reflective signature that we interpreted as clouds."

The planet is marked by high clouds in the west and clear skies in the east, the researchers said.

A bright spot in its western hemisphere was determined to be light from the planet's star is bouncing off cloud tops, they said.

"Kepler-7b reflects much more light than most giant planets we've found, which we attribute to clouds in the upper atmosphere," Thomas Barclay, Kepler scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said. "Unlike those on Earth, the cloud patterns on this planet do not seem to change much over time -- it has a remarkably stable climate."

The findings are an early step toward understanding the atmospheres of planets more like Earth in composition and size, researchers said.

"We're at a point now in exoplanet science where we are moving beyond just detecting exoplanets, and into the exciting science of understanding them," Paul Hertz, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division in Washington, said.

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