Astrophysicists on Earth are no strangers to WASP-39b, an exoplanet orbiting a star about 700 light-years from Earth, though they have never actually seen it directly. Now the Webb Space Telescope has offered a new view of this distant world: its observations have revealed the list of recipes for the planet’s toxic atmosphere.
WASP-39b is a gas giant about the mass of Saturn and the size of Jupiter, but it orbits its star at roughly the same distance as Mercury from the Sun, making the exoplanet very, very hot. The exoplanet was discovered in 2011; earlier this year, observations from the Webb telescope revealed carbon dioxide lurking in your atmosphere.
More molecules and chemical compounds have now been identified, including evidence for water, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, sodium, and potassium. The findings are under review for publication and currently available on the arXiv preprint server.
“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, lead author of the paper explaining the presence of carbon dioxide. sulfur in the planet’s atmosphere, in a Statement from the European Space Agency. “I see this as a really promising prospect for advancing our understanding of the atmospheres of exoplanets with [this mission].”
It’s no small feat to sniff out the chemicals floating in the atmosphere of a distant world. The closest confirmed exoplanet is 24.9 trillion miles away. However, Webb managed to detect such infinitesimal molecules in WASP-39b.
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Webb watched the planet expecting it to transit in front of its host star; when he did, the light from the star illuminated the planet from behind. Webb collected infrared wavelengths of that light, and scientists can tell which chemicals are present in the atmosphere based on the wavelengths of light they absorbed.
Webb’s capabilities have broader implications for understanding the diversity of exoplanets in our galaxy, with a view to their potential habitability. With its extreme heat and gaseous composition, WASP-39b is certainly not hospitable to any life we know of, but it shows the kind of molecular-level analysis that Webb can apply to distant worlds.
“I really want to see what we find in the atmospheres of small terrestrial planets,” said Mercedes López-Morales, an astronomer at the Centro de Astrofísica | Harvard & Smithsonian and co-author of the recent work, in the ESA statement.
Suggested data to researchers that chemicals in the planet’s atmosphere can break down in clouds, instead of being evenly distributed in its atmosphere. And based on the relative abundance of the chemicals in the atmosphere, the researchers believe WASP-39b arose from a clump of planetesimals over time.
While we don’t know where Webb will direct his infrared look below, we know, at some point, more the exoplanets will be at the dock. Webb has already investigated the atmospheres of the rocky planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system and may return to the system in due course. You can keep up with the latest Webb targets here.
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