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An Exoplanet Atmosphere As Never Seen Before

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New observations of WASP-39b by JWST provide a sharper image of the exoplanet, showing the presence of sodium, potassium, water, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere. rice field. The artist’s illustration also shows patches of clouds scattered across the newly discovered planet.Credit Melissa Weiss/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard and Smithsonian

JWST has achieved its first record yet again. A detailed molecular and chemical depiction of the sky of a world far away.

The telescope’s array of sensitive instruments was trained in the atmosphere of “hot Saturn,” a planet roughly the same size as Saturn orbiting a star some 700 light-years away, known as WASP-39 b. JWST and other space telescopes, including Hubble and Spitzer, have previously revealed isolated components of this scorching planet’s atmosphere, but the new measurements reveal atoms, molecules, and even energetic chemicals and clouds. offers a full menu of signs.

Mercedes Lopez Morales, astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, said: Harvard and Smithsonian, and he one of the scientists who contributed to the new results.

“We expected to see many of these signs, and yet, when we first saw the data, we were in awe,” adds Lopez-Morales.

The latest data also give us a hint of what these clouds on the exoplanet might look like up close. So instead of being a single uniform blanket covering the planet, it’s falling apart.

This discovery shows that JWST will be able to conduct the broader survey of exoplanets (planets around other stars) that scientists have been hoping for. This includes investigating the atmospheres of smaller, rocky planets, such as those in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said: Helped coordinate new research. “Data like this is a game changer.”

The series of findings is detailed in a set of five newly submitted scientific papers, available on the preprint website arXiv. Among the unprecedented discoveries was the first detection of sulfur dioxide, a molecule produced from chemical reactions triggered by high-energy light from the planet’s parent star, in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. On Earth, the protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere is created in a similar way.

Diana Powell, a NASA Hubble scientist, astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, and a core member of the team that discovered sulfur dioxide, said: “Earth’s climate is also shaped by photochemistry, so our planet has a lot more in common with ‘hot Saturn’ than previously known. “

Jea Adams, a graduate student at Harvard University and a researcher at the Center for Astrophysics, analyzed the data that confirmed the sulfur dioxide signal.

“As an early-career researcher in the field of exoplanet atmospheres, it’s very exciting to be a part of such a detection,” says Adams. “The process of analyzing this data felt like magic. Hints for this feature were in the early data, but this more accurate instrument clearly characterized his SO2 and solved the puzzle. It helped.”

With an estimated temperature of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit and an atmosphere composed mostly of hydrogen, WASP-39 b is not considered habitable. It has a mass similar to Saturn, but an overall size similar to that of Jupiter. But new research shows how to find evidence of potential life on habitable planets.

The planet’s proximity to its host star (8 times closer than Mercury’s to the Sun) also provides a laboratory for studying the effects of host star radiation on exoplanets. Better knowledge of the connections between stars and planets should lead to a deeper understanding of how these processes generate the planetary diversity observed in galaxies.

Other atmospheric constituents detected by the JWST include sodium, potassium and water vapor, confirming previous space and ground-based telescopic observations and providing additional water features at longer wavelengths never seen before. I found

JWST also observed carbon dioxide at higher resolution, providing twice as much data as reported from previous observations. Carbon monoxide was detected during that time, but no obvious signs of both methane and hydrogen sulfide were in the data. If present, these molecules occur at very low levels. This is an important discovery for scientists cataloging exoplanet chemistry to better understand the formation and evolution of these distant worlds.

Such an extensive capture of WASP-39 b’s atmosphere is a scientific feat, with hundreds of international teams independently analyzing data from JWST’s four finely tuned instrument modes. They then conducted a detailed cross-comparison of their findings, yielding even more scientifically nuanced results.

JWST observes the universe in infrared light, which lies in the red end of the light spectrum, beyond what the human eye can see. This allows the telescope to pick up chemical fingerprints that are invisible to visible light.

Each of the three devices has a version of infrared “IR” in its name. NIRSpec, NIRCam, and NIRISS.

To see the light from WASP-39 b, JWST tracked the planet as it passed in front of the star, allowing some of the star’s light to pass through the planet’s atmosphere. Different types of chemicals in the atmosphere absorb different colors in the star’s light spectrum, so the missing colors tell astronomers which molecules are present.

By analyzing exoplanet atmospheres with great accuracy, the JWST instrument will perform well beyond scientists’ expectations, promising a new stage in the exploration of various exoplanets within our galaxy.

Lopez Morales said, “I’m excited to see what we can find in the atmospheres of small terrestrial planets.”

About the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard and Smithsonian

The Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian is a collaboration between Harvard and the Smithsonian that seeks to ask, and ultimately answer, mankind’s greatest unanswered questions about the nature of the universe. The Center for Astrophysics is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with research facilities in the United States and around the world.

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