Webb telescope captures carbon dioxide on exoplanet


The exoplanet, WASP-39b, is a hot gas giant orbiting a sun-like star 700 light-years from Earth and part of a larger Webb study that includes two other transiting planets, according to NASA. Understanding the atmospheric composition of planets like WASP-39b is critical to knowing their origins and how they evolved, the agency noted in a press release.

“Carbon dioxide molecules are sensitive traces of the story of planet formation,” Mike Line, an associate professor in 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 study.

The team did 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 data from the telescope to the exoplanet research community as quickly as possible, guiding further scientific research and discovery.

The latter finding has been accepted for publication in the journal Nature.

“By measuring this carbon dioxide feature, we can determine how much solid versus how much gaseous material was used to form this gas giant planet,” Line added. “Over the next decade, JWST will take this measurement for a variety of planets, providing insight into the details of how planets form 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 toward its current orbit 1.5 million kilometers (nearly 932,000 miles) from Earth. By observing the universe with longer wavelengths of light than other space telescopes use, Webb can study the beginning of time more closely, hunt for unobserved formations among the first galaxies and peer into dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are currently forming.

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

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

Accessing 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 believed 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 makes up an atmosphere,” according to NASA.

Previously, NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer telescopes detected 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 data from JWST showed an unequivocal carbon dioxide signature that was so prominent it almost screamed at us.”

Scientists are asking the public to name 20 exoplanetary systems observed by the Webb telescope.  Here's how to submit your idea

“As soon as the data showed up on my screen, the massive carbon dioxide feature grabbed me,” team member Zafar Rustamkulov, a graduate student in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, said in a news release. “It was a special moment, crossing an important threshold in exoplanet science,” he added.

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

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
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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