Many exoplanets that orbit closely to their stars always face that star with the same side. As a result, they have permanent day and night sides. And yet, the climate on these planets is not necessarily scorching hot on one side and freezing on the other. This is due to a very efficient ‘air conditioning system’ that keeps surface temperatures within the habitable range.
Dr. Ludmila Carone, Professor Rony Keppens, and Professor Leen Decin from KU Leuven, Belgium, have now examined the possible climates of these exoplanets in unprecedented detail. “On the basis of 3D models, we examined exoplanets with different rotation periods and sizes,” Ludmila Carone explains. “We discovered that these rocky planets have three possible climates, two of which are potentially habitable.”
On exoplanets with rotation periods under 12 days, an eastward wind jet known as superrotation forms in the upper layers of the atmosphere along the equator. This wind jet interferes with the atmospheric circulation on the planet, so that its day side becomes too hot to be habitable. A second possible wind system is characterised by two weaker westward wind jets at high latitudes. The third climate option combines weak superrotation with two high-latitude wind jets. These last two wind systems do not interfere with the ‘air conditioning system’, so that the planets remain potentially habitable.
The findings provide valuable input for future space missions. Specifically, KU Leuven researchers are currently involved in the preparation of the James Webb Space Telescope mission (2018) – the Hubble successor – as well as the planet-finder mission PLATO (2024). Not only will the study help identify the most promising candidates for further research in our solar vicinity, it will also help avoid the premature discarding of potentially habitable planets that are worth investigating despite their ‘un-Earth-like’ appearance.