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The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a detailed molecular and chemical image of a distant planet’s sky, another first record for the exoplanet science community.
WASP-39b, better known as Bocaprins, can be found orbiting a star about 700 light-years away. It’s an exoplanet — a planet outside our solar system — about the size of Saturn’s mass but much closer to its host star, which makes an estimated 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (871 degrees Celsius) of gases to emit, according to NASA. This “hot Saturn” was one of the first exoplanets examined by the Webb telescope when it first began its regular science operations.
The new readouts provide a full analysis of Bokabrin’s atmosphere, including atoms, molecules, cloud formations (which appear to be broken, rather than a single, unified cap as scientists previously expected) and even signs of photochemistry caused by its host star.
Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who contributed to and helped coordinate the new research, said in the 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 in the atmosphere is created in a similar way from heat and sunlight in a photochemical reaction.
Bucaprinz’s proximity to its host star makes it an ideal subject for studying such connections between stars and planets. 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 initiated by energetic starlight — on exoplanets,” said Shang Min-tsai, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, in a NASA statement. “I see this as a really promising outlook for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.”
Other compounds detected in pukaprin’s atmosphere include sodium, potassium and water vapor, confirming previous observations made by other space and ground-based telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope.
The presence of such a complete list of chemical components in an exoplanet’s atmosphere provides insight into how this planet – and perhaps others – formed. The Bocaprins’ diverse chemical inventory indicates that many smaller bodies, called planetesimals, merged to create the final goliath of a planet, about the same size as the second largest planet in our solar system.
“This is just the first of many exoplanets that JWST will study in detail. We are already getting very exciting results,” Nestor Espinosa, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, told CNN. “This is only the beginning.”
The results are favorable for suggesting the ability of Webb’s instruments for investigations of exoplanets. By revealing a detailed description of the atmosphere of an exoplanet, the telescope’s performance exceeds scientists’ expectations and promises a new phase of exploration on a wide range of exoplanets in the galaxy, according to NASA.
“We will be able to see the big picture of exoplanet atmospheres,” Laura Flagg, a researcher at Cornell University and a member of the international team that analyzed the data from Webb, said in a statement. “It is very exciting to know that everything will be rewritten. That is one of the best aspects of being a scientist.”