This is an artist's impression of the gas-giant planet orbiting the yellow, Sun-like star HD 209458, 150 light-years from Earth. Astronomers used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to look at this world and make the first direct detection of an atmosphere around an extrasolar planet. The planet was not directly seen by Hubble. Instead, the presence of sodium was detected in light filtered through the planet's atmosphere when it passed in front of its star as seen from Earth (an event called a transit). The planet was discovered in 1999 by its subtle gravitational pull on the star. The planet is 70 percent the mass of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. Its orbit is tilted nearly edge-on to Earth, which allows repeated transit observations.
The planet is merely 4 million miles from the star. The distance between the pair is so close that the yellow star looms in the sky, with an angular diameter 23 times larger than the full Moon's diameter as seen from Earth, and glows 500 times brighter than our Sun. At this precarious distance the planet's atmosphere is heated to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit (1100 degrees Celsius). But the planet is big enough to hold onto its seething atmosphere.
Illustration Credit: G. Bacon (STScI/AVL)