The Webb telescope is testing a system for finding extraterrestrial life. The exoplanet WASP 39-b has revealed its secrets
The James Webb Space Telescope has sent back to Earth new and extremely detailed information about the exoplanet WASP 39-b – the same one the observatory looked at earlier in August, finding in its atmosphere, among other things, carbon dioxide. Thanks to JWST’s research, this object has become the best-known planet among those outside the solar system. At the same time, NASA scientists had a chance to test Webb’s systems, which can be extremely helpful in the search for extraterrestrial life.
WASP 39-b is an exoplanet 700 light-years from Earth orbiting a slightly smaller star in the constellation of Virgo. This gas giant, nicknamed “hot Saturn” due to its chemical composition, has a mass of about 1/3 that of Jupiter. Significantly, WASP 39-b orbits its host star in only 4 days and is 8 times closer to it than Mercury is to the Sun; the temperature on its surface is about 900 degrees Celsius – this fact makes the exoplanet in question unsuitable for life (at least not in its current form), it is an excellent object of observation for the Webb telescope.
JWST used three of its instruments – NIRCam, NIRSpec and NIRISS – to look at how light from a nearby star is “filtered” through the exoplanet’s atmosphere; this process is called transmission spectroscopy. In the atmosphere of WASP 39-b, in addition to the aforementioned carbon dioxide, water, carbon monoxide, potassium and sodium were found. This chemical composition is very similar to Saturn – for the record’s sake, let’s add, however, that the exoplanet most likely does not have any rings.
WASP 39-b – graphics showing the composition of the exoplanet’s atmosphere
However, new research, the results of which have been presented in as many as 5 different scientific articles, reveal further, sometimes surprising information about WASP 39-b:
- the presence of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere of the exoplanet was discovered, which clearly indicates the existence of a photochemical reaction process, similar in nature to the production of ozone by the Sun in the Earth’s atmosphere; this is important because photochemical reactions, according to scientists, may be crucial for finding those planets that are potentially habitable;
- the ratio of carbon to oxygen in WASP 39-b’s atmosphere is relatively low, which may mean that the planet “captured” water in the form of ice in the earlier stages of its existence – most likely this happened when WASP 39-b was much further from its parent stars, about the distance between the Sun and Jupiter; all this suggests that the exoplanet has moved within its planetary system;
- contrary to previous assumptions, WASP 39-b does not have a uniform layer of clouds in the atmosphere; when day turns into night on WASP 39-b, cloud cover is only about 60% – the explanation for this fact may be, among others, the phenomenon of evaporation of clouds depending on the changing temperature
The scientists responsible for the research have no doubt that the above information is a milestone in humanity’s knowledge of exoplanets, and has inevitably become a real test for the search for extraterrestrial life. The author of one of the analyses, Hannah Wakeford from the University of Bristol, sums up the whole process in this way:
I will not beat around the bush: when the first data reached us, I just cried. We anticipated what the Webb telescope might show us, but the information was more detailed, varied, and more beautiful than I originally thought.