A researcher from Abu Dhabi has spoken of her excitement after helping shed new light on a distant planet that has striking parallels to Earth, despite its dwarfed size.
A team of astrophysicists, including Dr Jasmina Blecic of New York University Abu Dhabi, have revealed in much greater detail what is in Wasp-39b’s atmosphere.
This huge furnace-like ball of gas – which lies 700 light-years away – has a diameter about 10 times that of Earth and an estimated temperature of around 900°C, the result being that it is one-eighth as far from its star as the planet Mercury is to the Sun.
In newly published research, Dr. Blecic and fellow researchers around the world revealed that the atmosphere of Wasp-39b – an exoplanet, meaning it orbits a star outside our solar system – contains sulfur dioxide.
As this gas was produced by light acting on chemicals in Wasp-39b’s upper atmosphere, this discovery means scientists have detected photochemistry for the first time on an exoplanet.
The planet has its own version of the ozone layer
Similar to the ozone layer that surrounds Earth, sulfur dioxide shields the deepest parts of Wasp-39b’s atmosphere from high-energy radiation.
“When we saw the first data, the clarity with which we can see the signals, we were all amazed,” said Dr. Blecic, a research associate at NYUAD’s Center for Astro, Particle and Planetary Physics.
Based on data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the findings are published in five journal articles Natureconsidered one of the most prestigious scientific publications in the world.
In the past, Dr. Blecic and his colleagues have interpreted data generated by two other large space telescopes, Hubble and Spitzer.
With the data from these two telescopes, the researchers were less certain that the chemicals they thought they detected were really there.
However, the information provided by the James Webb Telescope is of much higher quality, with much less “noise” and instrumental errors that need to be filtered out.
As reported by The National in August, previous studies using data from the James Webb Telescope indicated that Wasp-39b’s atmosphere contains carbon dioxide.
The results highlight the telescope’s capabilities
The new discovery of sulfur dioxide in Wasp-39b’s atmosphere has added significance in that it shows the James Webb Telescope can provide the information needed to detect the gas.
If the James Webb Telescope can detect sulfur dioxide in Wasp-39b’s atmosphere, it likely could detect it in the atmospheres of smaller rocky planets, some of which may have produced the gas through volcanic activity.
The discovery of volcanic activity on planets that exist in their own star’s habitable zone suggests they may be able to host life, so the latest findings have researchers optimistic about what they may find. else using data from the James Webb Telescope.
“If it were a rocky terrestrial planet in the habitable zone, that would tell us it has volcanic mechanisms,” Dr Blecic said.
“We weren’t sure if JWST would be able to detect the chemical species thought to be present on rocky terrestrial planets in the habitable zone. Now we are more confident than we can be.
The latest research also showed that Wasp-39b shattered clouds in its atmosphere, which parallels what is seen on Earth.
Wasp-39b’s orbit is observed edge-on, helping researchers determine how the atmosphere absorbs light.
This absorption pattern indicates which gases are present in the atmosphere, because different gases absorb wavelengths of light to different degrees.
In the coming weeks, Dr. Blecic will examine James Webb Telescope data from another exoplanet, Wasp-43b, using the Mid-Infrared Instrument (Miri) aboard the James Webb Telescope. Miri detects mid to long infrared radiation.
Wasp-39b could lead to even more exciting discoveries because researchers will be able to observe both the night side and the day side, unlike Wasp-39b, where only the night side was observed.
“We are very excited about this new analysis of the planet and what it will tell us, as this will be the first time we will observe a full orbit of the planet with JWST,” Dr Blecic said.
Surprising discoveries by an advanced telescope – in pictures
Updated: November 25, 2022, 3:30 a.m.
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