NASA's James Webb Telescope reveals molecular and chemical origins of distant planet

NASA’s James Webb Telescope reveals molecular and chemical origins of distant planet

Images captured by NASA’s James Webb Telescope reveal new information about the molecular and chemical profile of a distant exoplanet named WASP-39b.

WASP-39b is an exoplanet, which means that it is a planet located outside our solar system, some 700 light years from our planet.

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Although Webb and other space telescopes have previously revealed some of the ingredients isolated from this hot planet’s atmosphere, Webb’s new readings have provided more information about atoms, molecules, and even signs of active chemistry and of clouds.

The latest data also suggests that these clouds may appear fragmented up close rather than a single uniform blanket over the planet.

Similar to Saturn in mass and Jupiter in size, WASP-39b is composed of gas and is extremely hot. The planet has been the subject of great fascination among scientists since its discovery nearly a decade ago.

The telescope’s highly sensitive instrument array was trained on the atmosphere of WASP-39b, a “hot Saturn” – a planet about as massive as Saturn but in a narrower orbit than Mercury.

“We have observed the exoplanet with multiple instruments which together provide a broad band of the infrared spectrum and a panoply of chemical fingerprints inaccessible until [this mission]said Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who contributed and helped coordinate the new research, in a NASA statement released Tuesday.

“Data like this is a game-changer.”

Among the unprecedented discoveries was the first-ever detection of sulfur dioxide (SO2) in an exoplanet atmosphere, 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 Oxford University in the UK. Uni and lead author of the paper explaining the origin of sulfur dioxide in WASP-39b’s atmosphere.

“I see this as a really promising prospect for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres with [this mission].”

To capture the broad spectrum of molecules present in the exoplanet’s atmosphere, an international team of hundreds of scientists independently analyzed the data collected by Webb.

To see the light from WASP-39b, the telescope tracked 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 astronomers are able to determine which molecules are present simply by identifying which colors are missing in the spectrum.

Webb is able to pick up chemical fingerprints that cannot be detected in the visible when viewing the universe in infrared light.

The telescope has detected sodium, potassium and water vapor in the atmosphere of the exoplanet, confirming previous space and ground observations and finding additional fingerprints of water for the first time, at these lengths of d longer wave.

It also detected carbon dioxide at a higher resolution, providing twice as much data as reported in its previous observations.
Carbon monoxide was also detected, but obvious methane and hydrogen sulfide signatures were missing from the data. If present, these molecules occur at very low levels, NASA said.

The results are detailed in a series of five new scientific papers, three of which are in press and two are under review.

“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 the University of Bristol in the UK who studies the atmospheres of exoplanets.

The chemical inventory of WASP-39b suggests a history of collisions and mergers of smaller bodies called planetesimals to create a possible goliath of a planet.

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