NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope detects carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a distant world for the first time

An illustration of WASP-39 b, an exoplanet with a carbon dioxide-filled atmosphere.

An illustration of WASP-39 b, an exoplanet with a carbon dioxide-filled atmosphere.NASA, ESA, CSA and J. Olmsted (STScI)

Astronomers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have discovered conclusive evidence of carbon dioxide in a world beyond our solar system.

The planet, called WASP-39 b, is a gas giant orbiting a sun-like star about 700 light-years away, where temperatures are consistently around 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, or 900 degrees Celsius. While the planet was first discovered in 2011, Webb’s sensitive infrared instruments allowed researchers to analyze it in detail and definitively detect carbon dioxide there for the first time.

To better understand exoplanets, or planets around other stars, researchers train their telescopes to measure the chemical composition of the exoplanet’s atmosphere. They do this by looking at how starlight is filtered by the atmosphere, which dips at very specific wavelengths that correspond to different molecules.

Using Webb’s NIRSpec instrument on July 10, astronomers studied the gases and chemicals present in WASP-39 b’s atmosphere.

“As soon as the data hit my screen, the rich carbon dioxide feature grabbed me,” said Zafar Rustamkulov, a planetary scientist and member of the transiting exoplanets team, in a press release. “It was a special moment to cross an important threshold in exoplanet science.”

The 'rushing carbon dioxide feature' detected by Webb's near-infrared spectrograph as Earth transited its host star.

Carbon dioxide detected by the James Webb Space Telescope’s near-infrared spectrograph as Earth transited through its host star.NASA, ESA, CSA and L. Hustak (STScI); Science: The JWST Transiting Exoplanet Community Early Release Science Team

“The detection of such a strong carbon dioxide signal on WASP-39 b bodes well for the detection of atmospheres on smaller, Earth-sized planets,” said Natalie Batalha, an astronomer who leads the passing exoplanets team, in a press release.

While carbon dioxide is associated with life on Earth, when astronomers look for life on distant worlds, astronomers usually look for the ingredients that sustain life — liquid water, a continuous source of energy, carbon, and other elements.

When NASA unveiled the first set of Webb images on July 12, the agency included data showing the presence of water and evidence of clouds and haze in the atmosphere of an exoplanet called WASP-96 b orbiting a Sun-like star .

More discoveries are almost inevitable as Webb’s skills provide unprecedented insight into the atmospheres of distant planets.

“With the James Webb Space Telescope, we can study the chemical composition of the atmospheres of other worlds — and whether there are signs in them that we can only explain through life,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, professor of astronomy at Cornell University and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, to Insider.

“It’s an amazing time in our exploration of the cosmos,” Kaltenegger said, adding, “Are we alone? This amazing space telescope is the first instrument ever to collect enough light to answer this fundamental question.”

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