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The James Webb Space Telescope captured a detailed molecular and chemical portrait of the sky of a distant planet. another first goal for the exoplanet science community.
WASP-39b, known as Bocaprins, orbits a star about 700 light-years away. It’s an exoplanet — a planet outside our solar system — about the same size as Saturn but closer to its star, producing an estimated temperature of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (871 degrees Celsius) emanating from its gases, according to NASA. This “hot Saturn” It was one of the first exoplanets studied by the Webb telescope when he first began regular scientific activity.
The new readings provide photochemical signatures of Bocaprine’s atmosphere, including the atoms, molecules, cloud formations (which appear fragmented rather than a single, uniform blanket, as scientists had previously expected), and even the photochemistry produced by its star.
“We observed the exoplanet with multiple instruments that together provide a wide swath of the infrared spectrum and chemical fingerprints that were unavailable (until this mission),” said astronomer Natalie Batalha of the University of California, Santa Cruz. contributed to new research and assisted in coordination, In a NASA release. “Information like this is a game changer.”
The new data provided the first indication of an exoplanet’s atmosphere of sulfur dioxide, a molecule formed by chemical reactions caused by the planet’s host star and its high-energy light. On Earth, the protective ozone layer of the atmosphere is created in a similar way from heat and sunlight in a photochemical reaction.
Bocaprinus’ proximity to its host star makes it an ideal subject for studying such star-planet relationships. The planet is eight times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun.
“This is the first time we’ve seen concrete evidence of photochemistry — chemical reactions triggered by energetic starlight — on exoplanets,” Shang-Min Tsai, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the UK, said in a NASA statement. “I see this as a really promising outlook for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.”
Other compounds found in Bocaprine’s atmosphere include sodium, potassium and water vapor, confirming previous observations by other space and ground-based telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope.
Having such a complete list of the chemical ingredients in an exoplanet’s atmosphere provides insight into how this planet, and possibly others, formed. Various chemical inventories of bocaprines show that many small bodies, called planetesimals, have coalesced to form the final goliath of a planet, similar in size to the second largest planet in the Solar System.
“This is just the first of many exoplanets that will be studied in detail by JWST. … We are already getting very interesting results,” Nestor Espinoza, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, told CNN. “This is just the beginning.”
The findings are favorable to suggest the ability of Webb’s instruments to probe exoplanets. By revealing a detailed image of an exoplanet’s atmosphere, the telescope has exceeded scientists’ expectations and promises a new phase of exploration of the galaxy’s wide variety of exoplanets, according to NASA.
“We’re going to be able to see the big picture of exoplanet atmospheres,” said Laura Flagg, a Cornell University researcher and member of the international team analyzing Webb’s data. “It’s incredibly exciting to know that everything is going to be rewritten. This is one of the best aspects of being a scientist.”
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