NASA’s James Webb could help search for extraterrestrial life: Telescope reveals molecules and clouds in an exoplanet’s atmosphere that could be used to determine if a distant world harbors life
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has detected molecules and atoms in the atmosphere of an exoplanet 700 light-years from Earth.
The telescope also identified signs of active chemistry and clouds that had never been seen before.
The astronomers said the details could help them search for atmospheres that could contain signs of life and tell them how the exoplanet formed from the disk of gas and dust surrounding the parent star in its youngest years.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) could be a major player in the search for extraterrestrial life after successfully revealing the composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere in detail never seen before.
JWST’s powerful instruments captured atoms and molecules, along with signs of active chemistry and clouds, features that Hubble and Spitzer were unable to detect when they looked at the planet and those that contain evidence of signs of life.
The astronomers used WASP-39b, a hot Saturn 700 light-years from Earth, to test the telescope’s capabilities, and the telescope used its infrared capabilities to pick up colored chemical fingerprints that cannot be detected in visible light.
The new knowledge, considered a “game changer”, could reveal how this exoplanet formed from the disk of gas and dust that surrounded the parent star in its younger years.
The atmospheric composition of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-39 b has been revealed by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. This graph shows the items the telescope detected.
Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who contributed to and helped coordinate the new research, said in a statement: ‘We are observing the exoplanet with multiple instruments that, together, provide a wide swath of the infrared spectrum and a panoply of chemical fingerprints inaccessible until [this mission].
WASP-39b is orbiting a host star that is eight times closer than Mercury to our sun, which astronomers believe should provide a deeper understanding of how these processes affect the diversity of observed planets in the galaxy.
To uncover the exoplanet’s secrets, JWST tracked the planet as it passed in front of its star, allowing some of its light to filter through its atmosphere.
“Different types of chemicals in the atmosphere absorb different colors of the starlight spectrum, so the missing colors tell astronomers which molecules are present,” NASA shared in Tuesday’s announcement.
The astronomers tested the telescope’s capabilities using the exoplanet WASP-39b, located 700 light-years from Earth. James Webb was able to
“By viewing the universe in infrared light, Webb is able to detect chemical fingerprints that cannot be detected in visible light.”
The telescope also detected a variety of elements, including sodium (Na), potassium (K), and water vapor (H20) in the exoplanet’s atmosphere.
These confirm what was previously captured by observations from space and ground-based telescopes, but JWST found additional fingerprints of water at these longer wavelengths that had not been seen before.
Carbon dioxide was also found in the new data, which was detected at higher resolutions, providing double what was previously observed.
And although carbon monoxide was detected, the astronomers did not identify methane (CH4) or hydrogen sulfide (H2S) in the data.
Hannah Wakeford, an astrophysicist at the University of Bristol in the UK who researches exoplanet atmospheres, said in a statement: “We had predicted what [the telescope] would show us, but it was more accurate, more diverse and more beautiful than it really was.” I thought it would be.’
Having such a comprehensive list of chemical ingredients in an exoplanet’s atmosphere also gives scientists an idea of the abundance of different elements relative to one another, such as carbon-to-oxygen or potassium-to-oxygen ratios.