In two studies recently released by a group of astronomers researching exoplanets, the first direct observations of atmospheric loss on mini-Neptune exoplanets were confirmed. What’s more, the data from the studies points to the atmospheric loss potentially causing the mini-Neptunes to transform into super-Earth exoplanets — a stunning discovery in exoplanet research.
“Most astronomers suspected that young, mini-Neptunes must have evaporating atmospheres. But, nobody had ever caught one in the process of doing so until now,” said Michael Zhang, a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology and lead author of both studies.
The data from the studies also highlights another discovery, that an exoplanet’s parent star could be pulling in the atmospheric gases that were seen to be escaping from the planet. The researchers used data from observations made by the joint NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in low Earth orbit and from the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.