The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) continues its journey of showcasing one amazing aspect of the universe after the other, the latest being the first-ever look into an alien planet’s atmosphere. The breathtaking new data provide a detailed look at the atmosphere of a planet known as “hot Saturn”, which is roughly the same size as Saturn and orbits the star WASP-39 b 700 light-years away.
The science and other stuff to know
The thing that is so distinctly remarkable about the latest advancement is the clarity of information gathered by the ultra-sensitive space telescope. Although the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes had previously offered a preview of the ingredients present in hot Saturn’s atmosphere, the new data offer minute details of the atmospheric activities including “atoms, molecules, and even signs of active chemistry and clouds”, Phys.org reported.
The findings have been published in a set of five papers, two of which are under review.
Mercedes López-Morales, who is an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard and Smithsonian, and part of the team that analyzes the new results, told Phys.org that clarity of the “signals from a number of different molecules in the data is remarkable”.
The findings also reveal that while the clouds making up the atmosphere in exoplanets appear like a single continuous blanket, they were actually fragmented.
The James Webb observes the universe using infrared light, allowing it to detect chemical processes that cannot be picked up in visible light. Elements present in the atmosphere absorb different colors of the light spectrum, and the colors that go missing during an observation help astronomers discover the molecules that are absorbing those colors. For example, James Webb revealed that hot Saturn’s atmosphere contained sulfur dioxide, which is produced by chemical reactions triggered by high-energy light from the parent star.
Other atmospheric elements detected by the Webb telescope include sodium (Na), potassium (K), and water vapor (H2O), leading scientists to believe that exoplanets like hot Saturn have more in common with Earth than was previously thought.
James Webb is not only capturing and passing on data that is leading to new scientific discoveries about the universe, but it is also helping scientists align previous information with new findings.
The remarkable precision of the space telescope is indeed offering information overload to hundreds of scientists engaged in decoding and disseminating information about the outer universe. The findings are key to understanding the importance of key natural reactions like photochemistry and help model technological knowledge to analyze the potential signs of habitability on distant planets.
One of the questions that have troubled astronomers since ever is whether there are planets other than Earth that are fit for human habitation. With the extraordinary nature of information the James Webb telescope is able to gather, science might be inching closer and closer to answering that question.