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The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a unique molecular and chemical image of the skies of a distant planet, another first for the exoplanet science community.
VESPA-39b, otherwise known as Bocaprin, can be found in an orbital star some 700 light years away. It is an exoplanet — a planet outside our solar system — as large as Saturn, but much closer to its host star, making it emit gases with an estimated temperature of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (871 degrees Celsius), according to NASA. This “hot Saturn” was one of the first exoplanets that the Webb telescope examined when it first began its regular science operations.
The new readings provide a full breakdown of Bocaprin’s atmosphere, including atoms, molecules, cloud formations (which appear to be disintegrating, rather than a single, uniform blanket, as previously thought by scientists) and even signs of photochemistry from its host star.
“We observed the exoplanet with multiple instruments that simultaneously provide a broad swath of the infrared spectrum and an array of chemical fingerprints inaccessible until (the mission),” said Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who contributed to and helped coordinate the new research on NASA’s launch. “Information like this is a game changer.”
The new data provides the first signal in the atmosphere of an exoplanet’s sulfur dioxide, a molecule created by chemical reactions excited by the planet’s host star and its energy light. On Earth, the protective layer of the ozone atmosphere is created in a similar way from heat and sunlight in a photochemical reaction.
Bocaprin’s close proximity to its host star makes it an ideal object to study such host star planets. 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 the University of Oxford in Britain, in a NASA release. “I see this as a really promising prospect for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.”
Other compounds detected in Bocaprin’s atmosphere include sodium, potassium and water vapor, confirming observations previously made by other space and ground-based telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope.
Having such a large number of chemical ingredients in an exoplanet’s atmosphere provides insight into how this planet — and perhaps others — formed. Bocaprin’s diverse chemical inventory suggests that many smaller bodies, called planetesimals, may have coalesced to form an eventual giant planet, similar in size to the second-largest planet in our solar system.
“This is the first of many exoplanets to be studied in detail by JWST. … We’re already getting a lot of exciting results,” Nestor Espinoza, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, told CNN. “This is just the beginning.”
The findings are favorable to suggest the ability of the Webb instrument to conduct research on exoplanets. A telescope developing an accurate description of exoplanet atmospheres has exceeded scientists’ expectations and promises a new era of exploration into a wide variety of exoplanets in the galaxy, according to NASA.
“We will be able to see a big picture of exoplanet atmospheres,” said Laura Flagg, a researcher at Cornell University and a member of the international team that developed the data from Webb, in a statement. “It’s incredibly exciting to know that everything has to be renewed. That is the best part of physics. ”
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