The setting for Hollywood's sci-fi horror film has just been unveiled.
Researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope to study a star system located 1,400 light-years away from Earth have observed an orbiting exoplanet with a color of fresh asphalt. Named WASP-12b, the gas giant, categorized as a "hot Jupiter," absorbs an astounding 94 percent of visible starlight light that falls into its atmosphere.
In a paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, the scientists say the exoplanet's close proximity to its star likely accounts for its pitch-black coloring.
"The planet's atmosphere is so hot that most molecules are unable to survive on the blistering day side of the planet, where the temperature is 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit," they said in a statement. "Therefore, clouds probably cannot form to reflect light back into space. Instead, incoming light penetrates deep into the planet's atmosphere where it is absorbed by hydrogen atoms and converted to heat energy."
The research team was able to study WASP-12b using Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, an instrument that separates observed light and can indicate everything from temperature to chemical composition. The best time to do this is when an exoplanet is eclipsed by its parent star, an event that is supposed to produce a "dimming event" that can help gauge reflectivity. When WASP-12b was observed under these circumstances, however, no reflected light was detected.
While the planet's daytime side is subjected to extreme temperatures, its fixed nighttime side enjoys temperatures about 2,000 Fahrenheit degrees cooler. Previous Hubble observations of WASP-12b have detected water vapor and what appears to be clouds near the day/night boundary.
"We did not expect to find such a dark exoplanet," Taylor Bell of McGill University and the Institute for Research on Exoplanets in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, lead researcher of the Hubble study, said in a statement. "Most hot Jupiters reflect about 40 percent of starlight."
Unfortunately for WASP-12b, its distinction as the hottest known planet in the Milky Way is also a detriment to its lifespan. According to a 2010 study by researchers at The Open University in Great Britain, the planet's super-heated atmosphere is escaping and slowly being "consumed" by its host star. It's estimated that the gas giant, about twice the size of our Jupiter, will be completely devoured within the next 10 million years.