Exoplanet WASP-39 b Illustration

Like Never Seen Before: NASA’s Webb Reveals a Unique Exoplanet in Our Solar System

Exoplanet WASP-39b Illustration

Exoplanet WASP-39b Illustration. Credit: Melissa Weiss/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard and Smithsonian

Observations of exoplanet WASP-39b show fingerprints of atoms and molecules, as well as signs of active chemistry and clouds.

WASP-39 b is a planet unlike any other in our solar system – a

Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and has the second largest mass in the solar system. It has a much lower density than Earth but a much larger volume. Saturn’s name comes from the Roman god of wealth and agriculture.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{” attribute=””>Saturn-sized behemoth that orbits its star closer than Mercury is to our Sun. When

Exoplanet WASP-39 b and Star

This illustration shows what exoplanet WASP-39 b could look like, based on the current understanding of the planet. WASP-39 b is a hot, puffy gas giant with a mass 0.28 times Jupiter (0.94 times Saturn) and a diameter 1.3 times greater than Jupiter, orbiting just 0.0486 astronomical units (4,500,000 miles) from its star. The star, WASP-39, is fractionally smaller and less massive than the Sun. Because it is so close to its star, WASP-39 b is very hot and is likely to be tidally locked, with one side facing the star at all times. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

NASA’s Webb Space Telescope Reveals an Exoplanet Atmosphere as Never Seen Before

Another first was just scored by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope: a molecular and chemical profile of a distant world’s skies.

While Webb and other space telescopes, including NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer, previously have revealed isolated ingredients of this broiling planet’s atmosphere, the new readings from Webb provide a full menu of atoms, molecules, and even signs of active chemistry and clouds.

“Data like these are a game changer.” — Natalie Batalha

A hint of how these clouds might look up close is also provided by the latest data: they are likely broken up rather than a single, uniform blanket over the planet.

The telescope’s array of highly sensitive instruments was trained on the atmosphere of WASP-39 b, a “hot Saturn” (a planet about as massive as Saturn but in an orbit tighter than Mercury) orbiting a star some 700 light-years away.

The findings bode well for the capability of Webb’s instruments to conduct the broad range of investigations of all types of exoplanets – planets around other stars – hoped for by the science community. That includes probing the atmospheres of smaller, rocky planets like those in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

“We observed the exoplanet with multiple instruments that, together, provide a broad swath of the infrared spectrum and a panoply of chemical fingerprints inaccessible until [this mission]“said Natalie Batalha. “Data like this is a game-changer.” Batalha is an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who contributed and helped coordinate the new research.

Exoplanet WASP-39b (Webb transmission spectra)

The atmospheric composition of the giant hot gas exoplanet WASP-39b has been revealed by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. This graph shows four transmission spectra of three of Webb’s instruments operating in four instrument modes. A transmission spectrum is created by comparing starlight filtered through a planet’s atmosphere as it moves in front of the star, to unfiltered starlight detected when the planet is next to the star . Each of the data points (white circles) on these graphs represents the amount of a specific wavelength of light that is blocked by the planet and absorbed by its atmosphere. Top left, NIRISS data shows fingerprints of potassium (K), water (H2O), and carbon monoxide (CO). Top right, NIRCam data shows a prominent water signature. Bottom left, NIRSpec data shows water, sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and carbon monoxide (CO). Bottom right, additional NIRSpec data reveals all of these molecules as well as sodium (Na). Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

The rest of the findings are detailed in a set of five new scientific papers, three of which are in press and two are under review. Among the never-before-seen revelations is the first detection in an exoplanetary atmosphere of sulfur dioxide (SO2), a molecule produced from chemical reactions triggered by high-energy light from the planet’s parent star. On Earth, the protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere is created in the same way.

“This is the first time we’ve seen concrete evidence of photochemistry – chemical reactions initiated by energetic starlight – on exoplanets,” said Shang-Min Tsai, a researcher at the

University of Oxford
The University of Oxford is a collegiate research university in Oxford, England, made up of 39 constituent colleges and a range of academic departments, organized into four divisions. It was established around 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the second oldest university in the world in continuous operation after the University of Bologna.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{” attribute=””>University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and lead author of the paper explaining the origin of sulfur dioxide in WASP-39 b’s atmosphere. “I see this as a really promising outlook for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres with [this mission].”

“We predicted this [the telescope] would show us, but it was more accurate, more diverse, and more beautiful than I actually thought. — Hannah Wakeford

This led to another first: scientists applying computer models of photochemistry to data that needed a full explanation of that physics. The resulting modeling improvements will build the technological know-how to interpret potential signs of habitability in the future.

“Planets are sculpted and orbited in the host star’s bath of radiation,” Batalha said. “On Earth, these transformations allow life to thrive.”

The planet’s proximity to its host star – eight times closer than Mercury is to our Sun – also makes it a laboratory for studying the effects of host star radiation on exoplanets. A better knowledge of the star-planet connection should lead to a better understanding of how these processes affect the diversity of planets observed in the galaxy.

To see the light from WASP-39 b, Webb followed the planet as it passed in front of its star, allowing some of the star’s light to filter through the planet’s atmosphere. Different types of chemicals in the atmosphere absorb different colors from the spectrum of starlight, so the missing colors tell astronomers which molecules are present. By viewing the universe in infrared light, Webb can detect chemical fingerprints that cannot be detected in visible light.

Other atmospheric constituents detected by the Webb telescope include sodium (Na), potassium (K) and water vapor (H2O), confirming previous observations from space and ground telescopes as well as the discovery of additional fingerprints of water, at these longer wavelengths, that have never been seen before.

Webb also saw carbon dioxide (CO2) at a higher resolution, providing twice as much data as reported from its previous observations. Meanwhile, carbon monoxide (CO) was detected, but obvious signatures of both methane (CH4) and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) were absent from the Webb data. If present, these molecules occur at very low levels.

To capture this broad spectrum of WASP-39b’s atmosphere, an international team numbering in the hundreds independently analyzed data from four of the Webb Telescope’s finely calibrated instrument modes.

“We predicted this [the telescope] would show us, but it was more precise, more diverse and more beautiful than I actually thought,” said Hannah Wakeford, an astrophysicist at

University of Bristol
The University of Bristol, a red-brick research university in Bristol, England, received its royal charter in 1909. However, its history dates back to 1876 (as University College, Bristol) and 1595 (as Merchant Venturers School). It is organized into six academic faculties made up of several schools and departments offering more than 200 undergraduate courses.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{” attribute=””>University of Bristol in the United Kingdom who investigates exoplanet atmospheres.

Having such a complete roster of chemical ingredients in an exoplanet atmosphere also gives scientists a glimpse of the abundance of different elements in relation to each other, such as carbon-to-oxygen or potassium-to-oxygen ratios. That, in turn, provides insight into how this planet – and perhaps others – formed out of the disk of gas and dust surrounding the parent star in its younger years.

WASP-39 b’s chemical inventory suggests a history of smashups and mergers of smaller bodies called planetesimals to create an eventual goliath of a planet.

“The abundance of sulfur [relative to] hydrogen indicated that the planet likely experienced a significant accretion of planetesimals that may provide [these ingredients] to the atmosphere,” said Kazumasa Ohno, an exoplanet researcher at UC Santa Cruz who worked on the Webb data. “The data also indicates that oxygen is much more abundant than carbon in the atmosphere. This potentially indicates that WASP-39 b originally formed far from the central star.

By analyzing the atmosphere of an exoplanet with such precision, the instruments of the Webb telescope have exceeded scientists’ expectations and promise a new phase of exploration among the wide variety of exoplanets in the galaxy.

“We’re going to be able to get a big picture of the atmospheres of exoplanets,” said Laura Flagg, a researcher at Cornell University and a member of the international team. “It’s incredibly exciting to know that everything is going to be rewritten. It’s one of the best parts of being a scientist.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space telescope ever built and the world’s first space science observatory. It will solve the mysteries of our solar system, look beyond distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

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