The James Webb Space Telescope shows that a gas giant planet is partly cloudy : NPR


This illustration shows what the gas giant planet WASP-39 b might look like as it orbits its parent star.

NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

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NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

This illustration shows what the gas giant planet WASP-39 b might look like as it orbits its parent star.

NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

The James Webb Space Telescope has identified a rich mix of gases swirling in the air of a hot, Jupiter-like world orbiting a star about 700 light-years from Earth.

In addition to carbon dioxide, water and other molecules described in a series of new scientific papers published online, researchers say the telescope has spotted signs of sulfur dioxide.

That must have been caused by a series of chemical reactions in the planet’s atmosphere, fueled by the light from the Sun-like star that this gas giant planet orbits closely and that orbits about once every four days.

“That’s very exciting,” said Jacob Bean, an astronomer at the University of Chicago.

He notes that reactions caused by light are an important part of planetary atmospheres. For example, in the Earth’s atmosphere, sunlight produces ozone that prevents harmful radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface. But this kind of chemistry had never before been unequivocally observed in the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system.

Understanding how it works on other worlds “is becoming crucial to understanding life on other planets,” says Bean.

Scientists have detected thousands of planets orbiting far from the stars, almost always indirectly, by staring at stars with telescopes to see how they are affected by the presence of orbiting planets. In most cases, researchers know nothing about the planets except for the approximate size of the world and its distance from the star.

Sometimes, however, they’ve been able to get clues about planets’ atmospheres by analyzing the starlight that filters through them. That’s because different molecules absorb different wavelengths of light.

For example, the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a surprising amount of water vapor in the atmosphere of this particular planet, called WASP-39 b.

So when NASA’s new flagship telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, launched in December, scientists were eager to look at this planet to compare the image from their new instruments to what had been previously seen with Hubble.

“The Hubble observations are confirmed, but we’ve gone so much deeper into understanding this planet by revealing all these different molecules and being able to characterize their abundance much more accurately, and then seeing things we didn’t really expect,” says Bean.

“For example, the sulfur dioxide, that’s not something we’ve ever seen with Hubble,” says Bean. “But it was pretty simple and it just fell out of these first James Webb observations.”

In addition to detecting a wide variety of molecules in its atmosphere, astronomers also saw signs that this planet has a patchy, scattered cloud cover, he adds.

“It’s not completely cloudy yet,” says Bean. “It’s always great when we can learn something new about one of these kinds of planets that helps me create, at least in my head, a better mental picture of what the planet looks like.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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