Normally, when scientists see carbon dioxide during their investigations into outer space, the response isn’t usually one of happiness. But for once, its detection in the atmosphere of an exoplanet has scientists elated for the very first time.
That’s because this particular finding, which was produced by the new James Webb Space Telescope, is providing evidence that, in the future, the Webb will also be able to measure carbon dioxide in the thinner atmospheres of smaller rocky planets, while figuring out which ones are those that mostly likely have life on them.
Because of this observation of a gas giant planet that happens to orbit a sun-like star located 700 light years away shows very important insights into the formation and composition of the planet. The WASP-39 happens to be a hot gas giant whose mass is roughly one-quarter that of the planet Jupiter, and around the same as that of Saturn, or a diameter of 1.3 times greater than Jupiter. Apparently, the extreme puffiness seen is partially related to its very high temperature, which is around 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (900 degrees Celsius).
The WASP-39 b happens to orbit quite close to its star, unlike the cooler, more compact gas giants in the solar system. In fact, the WASP-39 b can complete a single circuit in just over four Earth-days.
Former telescope observations, like those including NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, happened to reveal the presence of water vapor, potassium, and sodium in the atmosphere of the planet. But with the recent and unmatched infrared sensitivity of the James Webb telescope, scientists have been able to confirm the presence of carbon dioxide on this planet too.
Graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and member of the JWST who work with the investigation, Zafar Rustamkulov, shared, “As soon as the data appeared on my screen, the whopping carbon dioxide feature grabbed me. It was a special moment, crossing an important threshold in exoplanet sciences.”
The research team also used one of the James Webb’s four peerless instruments, which are known as the Near-Infrared Spectograph (NIRSpec).
The first clear and detailed evidence of the carbon dioxide seen by the Webb is the first to ever be detected in a planet that is found outside our solar system. The findings resulted in a small reading between 4.1 and 4.6 microns on the spectrum of the exoplanet’s atmosphere.
Researchers explain that having access to this particular part of the spectrum is key for measuring the abundances of gases like methane and water, and also carbon dioxide, all of which are believed to exist in a variety of exoplanets.
Another member of the research team, Mike Line of Arizona State University, also said, “Carbon dioxide molecules are sensitive tracers of the story of planet formation.”
“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. In the coming decade, JWST will make this measurement for a variety of planets, providing insight into the details of how planets form and the uniqueness of our own solar system,” he added.
Notably, the researchers also share that ‘it’s also entirely fundamental to life’s processes on Earth at both higher and foundational orders – an inescapable constant in our bodies, ecosystems, and technology.’
Due to the major demand from different scientists on the use of the James Webb telescope because of it’s incredible and unparalleled capabilities, Rustamkulov and Line are both part of the group of the “Early Science Release Team”. Their job is to make foundational and amazing observations with the telescope, releasing them as quickly as they can to the astronomy community.
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