Here’s why some distant planets have sand clouds in their atmosphere

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While clouds are made up of water on Earth, their composition is quite different on other distant planets. Scientists have noted that some of these planets have sand clouds of silicates but have not been able to disentangle the conditions under which they formed. Now, a new study has revealed the common trait that is conducive to the development of sand clouds. Led by researchers at Western University, the study used observations of brown dwarfs made by NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope. Brown dwarfs are celestial bodies larger in size than a planet but smaller than a star.

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“Understanding the atmospheres of brown dwarfs and planets where silicate clouds can form can also help us understand what we would see in the atmosphere of a planet closer in size and temperature to Earth. “said Stanimir Metchev, professor of exoplanet studies at Western University in London, Ontario, and co-author of the study.

The formation of any type of cloud is the same when the key ingredient is heated to form vapors. Once the ingredient – which can be water, salt, sulfur or ammonia – is trapped and cooled, clouds are created.

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The same principle is involved in the formation of silica clouds but since rock requires a high temperature to vaporize, such clouds are only found over hot celestial bodies like brown dwarfs. The researchers used the incorporated brown dwarfs in their study because many of them have atmospheres similar to those of gas-dominated planets like Jupiter.

The Spitzer Telescope had already spotted traces of silica clouds in the atmosphere of some brown dwarfs. However, the evidence was not concrete enough. In the new study, the researchers used more than 100 of the detections and grouped them according to the temperature of the brown dwarf. This helped them discover a definitive trait and the temperature range in which silica clouds form.

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“We had to dig through the Spitzer data to find these brown dwarfs where there were indications of silicate clouds, and we really didn’t know what we were going to find,” said lead author Genaro Suarez.


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