Helium discovered in the atmosphere of an exoplanet for the first time

Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have detected helium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-107b. This is the first time that this element has been detected in the atmosphere of a planet outside the Solar System. The discovery, published in Nature, demonstrates a new method for studying exoplanet atmospheres.

An international team, led by Jessica Spake of the University of Exeter, has discovered helium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-107b. The discovery was made with the Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Helium is the second-most common element in the Universe after hydrogen”, explains Jessica Spake. “It is also one of the main constituents of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in our Solar System. However, until now helium has never been detected in an exoplanet.”

WASP-107b (the 107th exoplanet discovered by the UK-led Wide Angle Search for Planets, 'WASP') was discovered in 2017 by a team led by Professor Coel Hellier of Keele University.

The team found that WASP-107b is a very low-density planet, being so puffed up and bloated that the atmosphere might be boiling off the planet under the irradiation of its host star.

"As soon as we found WASP-107b we realised it was ideal for studying the atmosphere of an exoplanet," remarks Keele University astronomer David Anderson, who wrote the paper announcing WASP-107b.

Jessica Spake decided to point Hubble at WASP-107b, and, by detecting the spectral signature of irradiated helium atoms, proved that the atmosphere is indeed boiling off into space. While it had long been thought that helium would be abundant in exoplanet atmospheres, searches for it had previously been unsuccessful.

David Sing, who leads the Exeter team, says that: “Our new method, along with future telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, will allow us to analyse atmospheres of exoplanets in far greater detail than ever before.”

Jessica Spake continues. “We know that there is helium in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and this new technique may help us to detect atmospheres around Earth-sized exoplanets.”

About WASP-107b

WASP-107b was discovered by the WASP project - Wide Angle Search for Planets, which searches for exoplanets using the 'transit' method. The planet passes in front of ('transits') its star once per orbit, causing a small dip in the star's light.

WASP-107b is one of the lowest density planets known. While the planet has the same size as Jupiter it has only 12 % of its mass. The exoplanet orbits its host star in an orbit lasting only six days. The star is 200 light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Virgo.

Image credit: EngineHouseVFX