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UK Met Office will start forecasting weather on distant exoplanets and 'space weather'

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The UK's Met Office weather service has teamed up with the University of Exeter to forecast weather in the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere and on planets outside the solar system.

Space Weather
Space Weather

The Met Office, the UK's national weather service, is looking to expand its range well beyond Britain or even Earth. The Met Office and a team from the University of Exeter have announced that they will begin forecasting weather both in Earth's thermosphere (a layer of atmosphere between 90 and 600 kilometers above the surface) and on exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system. Thermosphere or so-called "space weather" is important for everything from aviation to GPS and radio use, says Dr. David Jackson of the Met Office.

Research on the exoplanets will be more experimental. Exeter researchers say they're interested in figuring out how winds distribute heat around the planets, which are often extremely close to the sun. Because of this proximity, the heat differential between the "day" and "night" sides of the planets causes winds up to kilometers a second to blow around them. This may actually inflate the atmosphere of the exoplanets, making them appear larger than they actually are. Other research may even make it possible to determine whether any planets are likely to contain life.

Although exoplanets operate very differently from Earth (even the clouds are made from "exotic materials" like titanium oxide), the Met Office's Unified Model should be able to forecast atmospheric conditions on them effectively once they're figured out. "The underlying physics of planets is remarkably similar," says astrophysicist David Acreman, "even if it's the Earth or a hot Jupiter."