The Webb telescope discovers an unprecedented exoplanet in deep space

The powerful Webb telescope doesn’t need to take pretty pictures to revolutionize our understanding of the universe.

The space observatory — which successfully reached its outpost a million miles from Earth this year — astronomers have focused on the Saturn-like exoplanet (WASP-39 b). It is a hot gas giant closely orbiting a star 700 light-years away. Previously, scientists used specialized instruments aboard Webb to detect carbon dioxide in this extreme world.

Now, for the first time, they have discovered a “complete list” of atoms and molecules in an exoplanet’s clouds, some of which are interacting. This latest discovery proves that astronomers can look into the atmospheres of alien exoplanets and decipher what is happening or is being made chemically — and if those worlds might then contain conditions that could harbor life. (On our planet, atmospheric chemistry, responsible for creating something like an insulating atmosphere and protective ozone layer, is vital to life.)

Starlight often fuels chemical reactions on a planet, a process dubbed photochemistry. This is what happens on WASP-39 b.

“Planets are sculpted and transformed by spinning within the host star’s radiation bath,” Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who contributed to the new research, said in a statement. “On Earth, these transitions allow life to flourish.” (The five papers showing the discovery are mentioned in this UC Santa Cruz press release.)

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Specifically, the Webb telescope found the presence of water vapor, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, sodium and potassium, among other elements. To detect such particles on distant planets, astronomers point the observatory to known exoplanets in our Milky Way galaxy. Then, as Mashable explained earlier, they do something very clever:

They will wait for the planets to travel in front of their bright stars. This starlight passes through an exoplanet’s atmosphere, then through space, and finally to instruments called Webb’s on-board spectrometers (a strategy called “transient spectroscopy”). They are basically high-tech prisms, which separate light into a rainbow of colours. Here’s the big trick: Certain molecules, like water, in the atmosphere absorb certain types or colors of light. Nestor Espinosa, an exoplanet researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute, who directs James Webb Space Telescope.

So if this color does not appear in the color spectrum observed by Webb’s spectrometer, it means that it has been absorbed (or “consumed”) by the exoplanet’s atmosphere. In other words, this element is in the sky of that planet. Spectrograph produces lines (identifying different types of light), not pretty pictures; But it is a wealth of invaluable information.

A particularly attractive finding on WASP-39 b is sulfur dioxide, which occurs when starlight hits the planet’s atmosphere. Using computers, the researchers simulated conditions in this distant atmosphere and determined that the photochemistry formed this molecule in the thick, fluffy clouds of WASP-39 b.

Chemical reactions in the atmosphere of an exoplanet

Graphic showing chemical reactions in the atmosphere of WASP-39 b.
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Robert Hurt; Center for Astrophysics – Harvard and Smithsonian / Melissa Weiss

“On Earth, these transitions allow life to flourish.”

Now, astronomers know they can use Webb to search for dynamic atmospheres on other worlds far out in space.

“We will be able to see the big picture of exoplanet atmospheres,” Laura Flagg, an exoplanet researcher at Cornell University who worked on this research, said in a statement. “It’s very 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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Stay tuned. The Webb telescope will look at the interesting atmospheres of the Trappist planets, seven rocky worlds found in a region of the solar system that is neither too hot nor too cold. On some of these celestial bodies, water can flow around the surface.

Sound familiar?

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