The mighty Webb Telescope doesn’t need to take pretty pictures to revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos.
Astronomers have focused the space observatory – which successfully reached its outpost a million miles from Earth this year – on the Saturn-like exoplanet (i.e. the planet beyond our solar system) WASP-39 b. It is a hot gas giant orbiting close to a star 700 light-years away. Previously, scientists used specialized instruments aboard Webb to detect carbon dioxide on this extreme world.
Now, for the first time, they have discovered “an entire menu” of atoms and molecules in the clouds of an exoplanet, and some of them are interacting. This latest detection proves that astronomers can peer into the atmospheres of strange exoplanets and decipher what’s happening or being chemically manufactured – and whether those worlds might then contain conditions that could harbor life. (On our planet, atmospheric chemistry, which is responsible for creating an insulating atmosphere and the protective ozone layer, is vital for life.)
Light from a star can often fuel chemical reactions on a planet, a process called “photochemistry.” This is what happens on WASP-39 b.
“Planets are sculpted and orbited in the host star’s radiation bath,” said Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who contributed to the new research, in a statement. “On Earth, these transformations allow life to thrive.” (The five research papers showing the discovery are listed in this UC Santa Cruz press release.)
What the Giant James Webb Telescope will see that Hubble can’t
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Specifically, the Webb Telescope discovered the presence of water vapor, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, sodium and potassium, among other elements. To detect such molecules on distant planets, astronomers direct the observatory to known exoplanets in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Then, as Mashable previously explained, they do something very deeply clever:
They will wait for the planets to travel past their bright stars. This starlight passes through the exoplanet’s atmosphere, then through space, and finally into instruments called Webb’s onboard spectrographs (a strategy called “transit spectroscopy”). They are essentially high-tech prisms, which separate light into a rainbow of colors. Here’s the big thing: Certain molecules, like water, in the atmosphere absorb specific types, or colors, of light. “Each molecule has a specific diet,” explained Néstor Espinoza, an exoplanet researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute, who leads the James Webb Space Telescope.
So, if this color does not appear in the spectrum of colors observed by a Webb spectrograph, it means that it has been absorbed (or “consumed” by) the atmosphere of the exoplanet. In other words, this element is present in the sky of this planet. The spectrograph produces lines (designating different types of light), not pretty pictures; but it is a wealth of invaluable information.
The particularly attractive detection on WASP-39b is sulfur dioxide, which occurs when light from a star hits a planet’s atmosphere. Using computers, the researchers simulated the conditions in this distant atmosphere and determined that photochemistry formed this molecule in the thick, fluffy clouds of WASP-39b.
A graph showing the chemical reactions in the atmosphere of WASP-39b.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Robert Hurt; Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian / Melissa Weiss
“On Earth, these transformations allow life to thrive.”
Now astronomers know they can use Webb to search for dynamic atmospheres on other distant worlds in space.
“We’re going to be able to get a big picture of exoplanet atmospheres,” Laura Flagg, an exoplanet researcher at Cornell University who worked on the research, said in a statement. “It’s incredibly exciting to know that everything is going to be rewritten. It’s one of the best parts of being a scientist.”
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Artist’s illustration of molecules reacting to sunlight in the clouds of an exoplanet.
Credit: Melissa Weiss / Center for Astrophysics | Harvard and Smithsonian
Stay tuned. The Webb Telescope will peer into the atmospheres of extremely intriguing Trappist planets, seven rocky worlds that exist in the zone of a solar system that is neither too hot nor too cold. On some of these orbs, water might splash on the surface.
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