The James Webb Space Telescope has made a ground-breaking observation about an exoplanet which is 700 light-years away from the sun. The new observations of the alien planet, called WASP-39b reveal patchy clouds, an intriguing chemical reaction in its atmosphere, and hints about its formation.
The new readings from Webb provide a full menu of atoms, molecules, and even signs of active chemistry and clouds, according to a press release by NASA.
The exoplanet WASP-39b orbits a star in the constellation Virgo. In August, Webb detected the signs of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of the planet outside our solar system.
The gas giant is about one-third the mass of Jupiter and more similar in composition to Saturn (a planet about as massive as Saturn but in an orbit tighter than Mercury).
“We observed the exoplanet with multiple instruments that, together, provide a broad swath of the infrared spectrum and a panoply of chemical fingerprints inaccessible until [this mission],” said Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz was quoted saying in the press release. Ms Batalha contributed to and helped coordinate the new research. “Data like these are a game changer.”
The astronomers used three of their instruments. They were able to observe light from the planet’s star as it filtered through WASP-39b’s atmosphere, a process known as transmission spectroscopy, reported Nature.com.
The team of more than 300 astronomers were allowed to detect water, carbon monoxide, sodium, potassium and more in the planet’s atmosphere, in addition to carbon dioxide.
Among the unprecedented revelations is the first detection in an exoplanet atmosphere of sulfur dioxide (SO2), a molecule produced from chemical reactions triggered by high-energy light from the planet’s parent star.
Shang-Min Tsai, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and lead author of the paper explained the origin of sulfur dioxide in WASP-39 b’s atmosphere. In the press note, Tsai said, “This is the first time we see concrete evidence of photochemistry – chemical reactions initiated by energetic stellar light – on exoplanets.”
Adding, “I see this as a really promising outlook for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres with [this mission].”
However, the exoplanet would never be able to support life as we know it.