The Webb Telescope makes another discovery on a distant exoplanet
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The James Webb Space Telescope captured a detailed molecular and chemical portrait of the sky of a distant planet, the first to score another for the exoplanet science community.
WASP-39b, otherwise known as Bocaprins, can be found orbiting a star about 700 light-years away. It’s an exoplanet — a planet outside our solar system — as massive as Saturn, but much closer to its host star, accounting for the estimated 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (871 degrees Celsius) temperature it emits from its gases, according to NASA. This “hot Saturn” was one of the first exoplanets examined by the Webb telescope when he first began his regular scientific operations.
The new readings provide a complete breakdown of Bocaprin’s atmosphere, including atoms, molecules, cloud formations (which appear to be broken up rather than a single uniform blanket as scientists had previously expected), and even signs of photochemistry caused by the host star.
“We observed the exoplanet with multiple instruments that together provide a wide range of infrared spectra and a wealth of chemical fingerprints unavailable until (this mission),” said Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who contributed to and helped coordinate the new research. in a NASA release. “Data like this is a game changer.”
The new data provided the first sign in an exoplanet’s atmosphere of sulfur dioxide, a molecule produced by chemical reactions triggered by the planet’s host star and its high-energy light. On Earth, the protective ozone layer of the atmosphere is created in a similar way from heat and sunlight in a photochemical reaction.
The proximity of Bocaprins to its host star makes it an ideal subject for studying such star-planet connections. The planet is eight times closer to its host star than Mercury is to our sun.
“This is the first time we’ve seen concrete evidence of photochemistry — chemical reactions triggered by energetic starlight — on exoplanets,” Shang-Min Tsai, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, said in a NASA statement. “I see this as a really promising prospect for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.”
Other compounds detected in Bokaprin’s atmosphere include sodium, potassium and water vapor, confirming previous observations from other space and ground-based telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope.
Having such a complete list of the chemical constituents of an exoplanet’s atmosphere provides insight into how this planet – and perhaps others – formed. Bocaprin’s diverse chemical inventory suggests that multiple smaller bodies, called planetesimals, coalesced to create an eventual goliath planet, similar in size to the second largest planet in our solar system.
“This is just the first of many exoplanets that JWST will study in detail. … We’re already getting very exciting results,” Nestor Espinoza, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, told CNN. “This is just the beginning.”
The findings are favorable to suggest the ability of Webb’s instruments to conduct research on exoplanets. By revealing a detailed descriptor of the exoplanet’s atmosphere, the telescope showed results beyond scientists’ expectations and promises a new phase in the study of a wide range of exoplanets in the galaxy, according to NASA.
“We will be able to see the bigger picture of exoplanet atmospheres,” Laura Flagg, a Cornell University researcher and member of the international team that analyzed the Webb data, said in a statement. “It’s incredibly exciting to know that everything is going to be rewritten. That’s one of the best parts of being a scientist.”
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