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The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a detailed molecular and chemical portrait of the sky of a distant planet, another first for the exoplanet science community.
WASP-39b, otherwise known as Bocaprins, can be found orbiting a star 700 light-years away. It is an exoplanet, a planet outside our solar system, as massive as Saturn but much closer to its host star, and emits an estimated temperature of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (871 degrees Celsius) from its gases, according to NASA. This “hot Saturn” was one of the first exoplanets studied by the Webb telescope when it began its regular science operations.
The new readings provide a complete breakdown of Bocaprin’s atmosphere, including atoms, molecules, cloud formations (which appear to be broken, rather than a smooth, uniform blanket as scientists had previously expected) and even signs of photochemistry caused by its host star.
“We observed the exoplanet until (this mission) with several instruments that provide a wide part of the infrared spectrum and a set of chemical fingerprints,” said Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. contributed to and helped coordinate the new research, according to a NASA statement. “Data like this is a game changer.”
The new data provided the first sign of sulfur dioxide in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, a molecule formed from chemical reactions triggered by the planet’s host star and its high-energy light. On Earth, the protective ozone layer of the atmosphere is created in a photochemical reaction similar to heat and sunlight.
Bocaprin’s proximity to its host star makes it an ideal subject for studying star-planet connections. The planet is eight times closer to its host star than Mercury is to our sun.
“This is the first time we’ve seen concrete evidence of photochemistry (chemical reactions triggered by light from energetic stars) on exoplanets,” Shang-Min Tsai, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, said in a NASA statement. “I see this as a promising approach for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.”
Other compounds detected in Bocaprin’s atmosphere include sodium, potassium and water vapor, confirming previous observations by other space and ground-based telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope.
Having a complete list of the chemical constituents of an exoplanet’s atmosphere provides insight into how this planet and possibly others formed. Bocaprin’s diverse chemical inventory suggests that several smaller bodies, called planetesimals, coalesced to form a 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 JWST will study in detail. … We’re already getting very exciting results,” Nestor Espinoza, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, told CNN. “This is just the beginning.”
The findings are favorable in suggesting the ability of Webb’s instruments to conduct research on exoplanets. By revealing an accurate descriptor of an exoplanet’s atmosphere, the telescope has performed beyond scientists’ expectations and promises a new phase of exploration of the galaxy’s diverse exoplanets, according to NASA.
“We will be able to see the overall picture of the exoplanet’s atmosphere,” 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 will be rewritten. That’s one of the best things about being a scientist.”