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The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a detailed molecular and chemical portrait of the sky of a distant planet, marking another first for the exoplanet science community.
WASP-39b, otherwise known as Bocaprins, can be found orbiting a star about 700 light-years away. It’s an exoplanet – a planet outside our solar system – as massive as Saturn but much closer to its host star, giving an estimated temperature of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (871 degrees Celsius) emitted from its gases, according to The NASA. This “hot Saturn” was one of the first exoplanets the Webb Telescope examined when it began regular scientific operations.
The new readings provide a full breakdown of Bocaprins’ atmosphere, including atoms, molecules, cloud formations (which appear to be broken up, rather than a single uniform blanket as scientists previously expected) and even signs of photochemistry caused by its host star.
“We observed the exoplanet with multiple instruments that together provide a broad band of the infrared spectrum and an array of chemical fingerprints inaccessible until (this mission),” said Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California. at Santa Cruz, who contributed and helped coordinate the new research, in a NASA statement. “Data like this is a game-changer.”
The new data provided the first sign in an exoplanet’s atmosphere of sulfur dioxide, a molecule produced from chemical reactions triggered by the planet’s host star and its high-energy light. On Earth, the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer is similarly created from heat and sunlight in a photochemical reaction.
Bocaprins’ proximity to its host star makes it an ideal subject for studying such 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 initiated by energetic starlight – on exoplanets,” said Shang-Min Tsai, a researcher at Oxford University in the UK. United, in a NASA statement. “I see this as a really promising prospect for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.”
Other compounds detected in Bocaprins’ atmosphere include sodium, potassium and water vapor, confirming previous observations made by other space and ground-based telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope.
Having such a comprehensive list of chemical ingredients in an exoplanet atmosphere provides insight into how this planet – and possibly others – formed. The diverse chemical inventory of Bocaprins suggests that several smaller bodies, called planetesimals, had merged to create a possible 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 are going to be studied in detail by the JWST. … We are already getting some very exciting results,” Space Telescope Science Institute astronomer Nestor Espinoza told CNN. is just the beginning.”
The results are favorable in suggesting the ability of Webb’s instruments to conduct exoplanet surveys. By revealing a detailed descriptor of an exoplanet’s atmosphere, the telescope has exceeded scientists’ expectations and promises a new phase of exploration of the galaxy’s wide variety of exoplanets, according to NASA.
“We’re going to be able to get a big picture of the atmospheres of exoplanets,” Laura Flagg, a researcher at Cornell University and a member of the international team that analyzed Webb’s data, said in a statement. “It’s incredibly exciting to know that everything is going to be rewritten. It’s one of the best parts of being a scientist.