Distant 'Hot Jupiter' Planet CoRoT-2b Has Strange Winds That Astronomers Can't Explain

An artist's depiction of CoRoT-2b. NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (IPAC)

Scientists have identified 3,587 exoplanets to date, and each new world offers a new understanding of how planets work. One planet, called CoRoT-2b, has scientists questioning previous theories about what's happening on these distant worlds. That's because it has hot spots where winds blow the wrong way.

"We've previously studied nine other hot Jupiter, giant planets orbiting super close to their star. In every case, they have had winds blowing to the east, as theory would predict," said Nicolas Cowan, McGill University astronomer, in a press release. "But now, nature has thrown us a curveball."

Cowan is a co-author of a new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy chronicling these rebellious hot spots. The researchers are hoping that the anomalous winds could provide new insights into "what makes hot Jupiters tick," he says.

Sometimes, these planets are what's called tidally locked around their sun. This is the same way our Moon orbits Earth: We always see the same side of it. That's fine when you're orbiting a planet, but becomes much grimmer when you're orbiting a star: It means one side of the planet is in eternal fiery daylight and the other in eternal icy night.

The result is a bull's eye of heat on the day side of the planet. Astronomers have found that winds on such planets tend to carry some of that heat toward the east. But not so on CoRoT-2b, the new paper finds. Instead, the planet's heat is drifting west, which means that something must be causing its winds to blow in the opposite direction of all its sibling exoplanets.

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The scientists behind the new paper came up with a few possible explanations for the weird phenomenon. They say the planet, first discovered in 2007, could actually be spinning more slowly than they think, which might cause the winds to lag, sending them westward. Maybe CoRoT-2b has a magnetic field that is redirecting the surface winds. Finally, they say, a strange cloud pattern could be messing with their data.

Fortunately, help is on the way: The James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch sometime next year, is designed to analyze the atmospheres on distant planets. That could give scientists the information they need to crack CoRoT-2b's secrets.