The Webb Telescope makes another discovery of a distant exoplanet

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The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a detailed molecular and chemical portrait of the sky of a distant planet, marking another first for the exoplanet science community.

WASP-39b, also known as Bocaprins, can be found orbiting 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 an estimated temperature of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (871 degrees Celsius) emitted by its gases, according to NASA. This “hot Saturn” was one of the first exoplanets that the Webb telescope explored when it first began its regular science operations.

The new readings provide a complete breakdown of Bocaprins’ atmosphere, including atoms, molecules, cloud formations (which appear broken up rather than a single, uniform blanket as scientists previously expected), and even signs of photochemistry caused by the host star.

“We observed the exoplanet with multiple instruments that together provide a broad swath of the infrared spectrum and a set of chemical signatures unavailable to (this mission),” said Natalie Batala, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who contributed to and helped coordinate the new study. , in a NASA release. “Data like this is a game changer.”

The new data provided the first sign in an exoplanet’s atmosphere of sulfur dioxide, a molecule produced by chemical reactions triggered by the planet’s host star and its high-energy light. On Earth, the protective ozone layer of the atmosphere is similarly created by heat and sunlight in a photochemical reaction.

Beaucaprins’ close 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 initiated by energetic starlight — on exoplanets,” Shang-Min Tsai, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, said in a NASA release. “I see this as a really promising prospect for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.”

Other compounds found in Bokaprins’ 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 list of chemical constituents in an exoplanet’s atmosphere provides insight into how that planet — and perhaps others — formed. Bokaprins’ diverse chemical inventory suggests that multiple smaller bodies, called planetesimals, have merged to create a possible goliath 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 Espinosa, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, told CNN. “This is only the beginning.”

The findings are favorable for suggesting the ability of Webb’s instruments to conduct exoplanet studies. By revealing a detailed descriptor of an exoplanet’s atmosphere, the telescope performed beyond scientists’ expectations and promises a new phase in the study of the wide variety of exoplanets in the galaxy, according to NASA.

“We will be able to see the big picture of exoplanet atmospheres,” Laura Flagg, a researcher at Cornell University and a member of the international team that analyzed the Webb data, said in a statement. “It’s incredibly exciting to know that everything is going to be rewritten. That’s one of the best parts of being a scientist.”

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