A boiling Saturn-like planet 700 light-years from the sun has become the best-explored planet outside our solar system. The James Webb Space Telescope’s measurements of the planet’s atmosphere have revealed unprecedented details about its chemical composition, and allowed astronomers to test methods for detecting alien life.
The exoplanet WASP-39b, which orbits a star in the constellation Virgo, made headlines in late August when James Webb Space Telescope (Webb or JWST) found carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. she was The first discovery of its kind Experts hailed the results as a major advance. Now, less than three months later, a slew of studies based on observations from the Large Telescope have revealed the finest details of WASP-39b’s atmosphere, enabling even astronomers to draw conclusions about the formation history of the exoplanets.
Laura Kreidberg, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Germany who participated in the observations, said in a statement. statement. “We put the telescope through its paces for performance testing, and it was almost flawless—even better than we could have hoped.”
Astronomers used three of Webb’s four instruments to observe the distant planet: the main one NIRCam Camera and two NIRISS spectrometers NIRwhich divides the light from the observed objects into light Spectrathe barcode-like fingerprints that reveal the chemical compositions of observed planets and stars.
Observations revealed that WASP-39b is shrouded in dense clouds containing sulfur and silicates. These chemicals react with the light of the parent star, producing sulfur dioxide in a reaction similar to the reaction that produces ozone in the atmosphere Earth’s atmosphere.
WASP-39b is a gas giant About a third of the volume Solar Systemlargest planet, Jupiterand orbits only 4.3 million miles (7 million kilometers) from its parent star, or eight times closer than the distance of the innermost planet in the solar system. Mercury from the sun.
The sheer intensity of starlight hitting WASP-39b makes the planet an ideal laboratory for studying such photochemical reactions, the scientists said in the statement.
The level of detail provided by JWST allowed astronomers to peek into WASP-39b’s past and see how this hot, scorching world came to be. From the ratios of carbon to oxygen, potassium to oxygen, and sulfur to hydrogen in the planet’s atmosphere, the researchers conclude that the gas giant planet must have formed from the collision of several smaller planets. In addition, the much higher abundance of oxygen compared to carbon in the dense clouds revealed that WASP-39b formed farther from its star than it orbits today.
“Data like this is a game-changer,” Natalia Batalha, a UC Santa Cruz professor of astronomy and astrophysics who coordinated the observing program, said in the release.
The observations even allowed astronomers to test methods that could one day help detect life on other exoplanets. This discovery will be based on a similar atmospheric analysis as was done on WASP-39b, and then a comparison of the results to models of alien planets. If a planet shows more oxygen than those models predict, for example, that could be a sign of life.
However, WASP-39b, due to its proximity to its parent star, is an unlikely candidate to host extraterrestrial life as the temperature on the planet soars to 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit (900 degrees Celsius).
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