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Meghan Leach & Stephanie Sunata/MEDILL

Hot gas giants outside our solar system could help create climate models.  Northwestern planetary scientists combine astrophysics with geology to probe the climate on these worlds that orbit distant stars. 

Why 'hot Jupiters' are cool

by Meghan Leach and Stephanie Sunata
Dec 04, 2012


Meghan Leach/MEDILL

Northwestern planetary scientist Nick Cowan is gathering climate data from "hot Jupiters" outside our solar system. Studying the massive, hot gas giants and, eventually, other planet groups can help build a universal climate model.     

The study of climates on hot, gaseous planets outside our solar system could help shine light on our own weather.

Though climate circulation on "hot Jupiters" moves 90 degrees off from most weather patterns on Earth, scientists said this research could help create better climate models.

"Hot Jupiters" are often many times the mass of the largest planet in our solar system - the planet they are named after.  Gathering data about these planets is typically difficult because they are light years from our sun.

But Northwestern University planetary scientist Nick Cowan helped develop a way to observe the 'hot Jupiters' from Earth by observing thermal radiation emitted by the planets. When paired with knowledge about the planet's orbit, scientists can determine climate patterns.

Cowan and his team focus on "hot Jupiters" that have small orbits, meaning they are close to their suns and  complete a full revolution in a matter of days. The composition of the planets and their vicinity to their stars mean the hemisphere closest to the sun heats relatively evenly. The side of the planet that faces away from the star is colder, so heat and weather patterns generally move on an east-west trajectory.

This is different from the Earth. On Earth the poles are much colder than the equator, where our planet gets most of its radiation. So atmospheric circulation has strong north-south components, moving heat to the poles.

But this is only one family of planets Cowan plans to observe through thermal radiation. 

He said he wants to gather large amounts of climate data from a variety of planet types, which could help create a universal climate model for planets.  This could help us better understand our own climate on the Earth, he said.