NASA’s Webb Telescope captures the first evidence of carbon dioxide on an exoplanet

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured the first clear evidence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, a planet outside our solar system.

The exoplanet, WASP-39b, is a hot gas giant orbiting a sun-like star that sits 700 light-years from Earth and is part of a larger Webb survey that includes two other planets. in transit, according to NASA. Understanding the atmospheric composition of planets like WASP-39b is key to understanding their origins and evolution, the agency noted in a press release.

“Carbon dioxide molecules are sensitive tracers of the history of planet formation,” Mike Line, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, said in the press release. Line is a member of the JWST Transiting Exoplanet Community Early Release Science team, which conducted the survey.

The team performed the carbon dioxide observation using the telescope’s near-infrared spectrograph – one of Webb’s four scientific instruments – to observe WASP-39b’s atmosphere. Their research is part of the Early Release Science Program, an initiative designed to provide telescope data to the exoplanet research community as soon as possible, guiding new scientific studies and discoveries.

This latest discovery has been accepted for publication in the journal Nature.

“By measuring this characteristic of carbon dioxide, we can determine the amount of solid matter versus the amount of gaseous matter that was used to form this gas giant planet,” Line added. “Over the next decade, JWST will make this measurement for a variety of planets, providing insight into the details of planet formation and the uniqueness of our own solar system.”

A NEW ERA IN EXOPLANET RESEARCH

The highly sensitive Webb Telescope was launched on Christmas Day 2021 to its current orbit 1.5 million kilometers (nearly 932,000 miles) from Earth. By observing the universe with longer wavelengths of light than those used by other space telescopes, Webb can study the beginning of time more closely, search for unobserved formations among early galaxies, and peer inside clouds of dust where stars and planetary systems currently form.

In the captured spectrum of the planet’s atmosphere, the researchers saw a small hill between 4.1 and 4.6 microns – a “clear signal of carbon dioxide”, said team leader Natalie Batalha, professor in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the release. (A micron is a unit of length equal to one millionth of a meter.)

“Depending on the composition, thickness and cloudiness of the atmosphere, it absorbs some colors of light more than others, making the planet appear larger,” said team member Munazza Alam, postdoctoral at the Earth & Planets Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution for Science. “We can analyze these tiny differences in planetary size to reveal the chemical composition of the atmosphere.”

Access to this part of the light spectrum – which the Webb telescope makes possible – is crucial for measuring the abundance of gases such as methane and water, as well as carbon dioxide, which are thought to exist in many exoplanets. , according to NASA. Because individual gases absorb different combinations of colors, researchers can examine “small differences in the brightness of transmitted light across a spectrum of wavelengths to determine exactly what an atmosphere is made of,” according to NASA.

Previously, NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer telescopes had discovered water vapor, sodium and potassium in the planet’s atmosphere. “Previous observations of this planet with Hubble and Spitzer had given us tantalizing hints that carbon dioxide might be present,” Batalha said. “The JWST data showed an unequivocal carbon dioxide feature that was so prominent it was practically screaming at us.”

“As soon as the data appeared on my screen, the huge carbon dioxide feature grabbed me,” said team member Zafar Rustamkulov, a graduate student in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth Sciences and planets from Johns Hopkins University, in a statement. Release. “It was a special moment, crossing an important threshold in exoplanet science,” he added.

Discovered in 2011, WASP-39b’s mass is about the same as Saturn’s and about a quarter that of Jupiter’s, while its diameter is 1.3 times that of Jupiter’s. Since the exoplanet orbits very close to its star, it completes one circuit in just over four Earth days.

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