For the first time, astronomers have created a rough map of a planet orbiting a distant sun-like star, employing a technique that may one day enable mapping of Earth-like worlds. Because the planet just charted is a gas giant and lacks a solid surface, the map shows cloud-top features. Using the Spitzer infrared space telescope, astronomers detected a bright hot spot that is offset from “high noon,” where heating is greatest.

“We are getting our first good look at a completely alien world,” said Heather Knutson, a graduate student at Harvard University and lead author of a paper about the research appearing in the May 10 issue of the journal Nature.

“We felt a little like Galileo must have felt when he first glimpsed Jupiter through the eyepiece of his telescope,” Knutson continued.

Spitzer is only capable of mapping large, hot worlds — planets too hot for liquid water or life. However, the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled for launch in 2013) may be able to map Earth-like worlds using the technique Knutson and her colleagues pioneered.

The team examined the planet, known as HD 189733b, using the infrared array camera on board NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared observations offer an advantage because the brightness difference between star and planet is lessened, making it easier to tease out the planet’s signal.

Over the course of 33 hours, the team collected more than a quarter-million data points. Although Spitzer could not resolve the planet into a disk, by measuring changes as the planet rotated, the team created a simple longitudinal map. That is, they measured the planet’s brightness in a series of pole-to-pole strips across the planet’s visible cloud-tops, then assembled those strips into an overall picture.

“We can see the changes in brightness as features in the planet’s atmosphere rotate into and out of view,” Knutson explained.

The map revealed a single “hot spot” that is about twice as big as the Great Red Spot on Jupiter and much hotter. The Great Red Spot is only about 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than its surroundings, with a temperature of –200 degrees F. In comparison, the hot spot on HD 189733b is a scorching 1,700 degrees F.

Interestingly, researchers found that the hottest point on the planet is not the substellar point (“high noon” on the planet), but rather is offset by about 30 degrees longitudinally. They speculate that the shift is due to winds redistributing heat across the face of the planet.

“This planet has powerful jet streams. While Earth’s jet stream blows at around 200 miles per hour, the jet stream on HD 189733b may blow as fast as 6,000 miles per hour, according to computer models,” said co-author David Charbonneau (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics).

The distant planet’s strong, hot winds may also help to keep the planet’s night side warm. Without winds, the side facing the star would broil while the opposite side would freeze. However, the astronomers measured a maximum temperature difference of about 500 degrees F. The coldest regions on the night side remain a balmy 1,200 degrees F.

“Every night is hot on this world,” stated Knutson.

HD 189733b orbits a star slightly cooler and less massive than the sun located about 60 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Vulpecula. It is the closest known “transiting” planet to Earth.

HD 189733b orbits its star at a distance of only 3 million miles, completing one revolution every 2.2 days. Its mass and physical size are both slightly larger than Jupiter.

This discovery was made with Spitzer’s infrared array camera, built primarily at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The instrument’s principal investigator is Giovanni Fazio of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center, Pasadena, Calif. JPL is a division of California Institute for Technology, Pasadena.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.