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The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a detailed molecular and chemical portrait of the sky of a distant planet, a new first for the exoplanet science community.
WASP-39b, also known as Bocaprins, orbits a star about 700 light-years away. It’s an exoplanet — a planet outside our solar system — as massive as Saturn but much closer to its host star, making for an estimated temperature of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (871 degrees Celsius) coming from its gases, according to NASA. This “hot Saturn” was one of the first exoplanets the Webb telescope examined when it first began its regular science operations.
The new measurements provide a complete overview of Bocaprins’ atmosphere, including atoms, molecules, cloud formations (which appear to be broken, rather than a single, uniform blanket as scientists previously expected) and even signs of photochemistry caused by its host star.
“We observed the exoplanet with multiple instruments that together provide a broad swath of the infrared spectrum and an arsenal of chemical fingerprints that are inaccessible to (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 release. “Data like this is a game changer.”
The new data formed the first sign in the atmosphere of an exoplanet made of sulfur dioxide, a molecule produced by chemical reactions caused by the planet’s parent star and its high-energy light. On Earth, the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer is similarly created from heat and sunlight in a photochemical reaction.
Bocaprins’ proximity to its host star makes it an ideal subject for studying such star-planet connections. The planet is eight times closer to its parent star than Mercury is to our sun.
“This is the first time we’ve seen concrete evidence of photochemistry — chemical reactions initiated by energetic stellar light — on exoplanets,” said Shang-Min Tsai, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, in a NASA release. . “I see this as a promising prospect for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.”
Other compounds detected in Bocaprins’ atmosphere include sodium, potassium and water vapor, confirming previous observations made by other space and ground-based telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope.
Having such a complete roster of chemical ingredients in an exoplanet’s atmosphere provides insight into how this planet – and perhaps others – came to be. Bocaprins’ diverse chemical inventory suggests that several smaller bodies called planetesimals had coalesced into a final behemoth of a planet, similar in size to the second-largest planet in our solar system.
“This is just the first of many exoplanets that will be studied in detail by JWST. … We are already getting very exciting results,” Nestor Espinoza, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, told CNN. “This is just the beginning. ”
The findings are beneficial in suggesting the ability of Webb’s instruments to investigate exoplanets. By revealing a detailed descriptor of an exoplanet’s atmosphere, the telescope has surpassed scientists’ expectations and promises a new phase of exploration of the wide variety of exoplanets in the galaxy, NASA said.
“We will be able to see the big picture of exoplanets’ atmospheres,” Laura Flagg, a researcher at Cornell University and a member of the international team that analyzed data from Webb, said in a statement. “It’s incredibly exciting to know that everything is going to be rewritten. That is one of the best aspects of being a scientist.”