JWST Searches for Planets in the Fomalhaut System

This image shows Fomalhaut, the star around which the newly discovered planet orbits. Fomalhaut is much hotter than our Sun, 15 times as bright, and lies 25 light-years from Earth. It is blazing through hydrogen at such a furious rate that it will burn out in only one billion years, 10% the lifespan of our star. The field of view is 2.7 x 2.9 degrees.

The Fomalhaut system is nearby in astronomical terms, and it’s also one of the brightest stars in the night sky. That means astronomers have studied it intensely over the years. Now that we have the powerful James Webb Space Telescope the observations have intensified.

The Fomalhaut system has a confounding and complex dusty disk, including a dusty blob. The blob has been the subject of an ongoing debate in astronomy. Can the JWST see through its complexity and find answers to the systems unanswered questions?

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Seeing the Moment Planets Start to Form

ALMA captured this high-resolution image of the protoplanetary disk surrounding DG Taurus at a 1.3 mm wavelength. The young star is still embedded in its disk, and the smooth appearance, absent of ring-like structures, indicates a phase shortly before planets form. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), S. Ohashi, et al.

Nature makes few duplicates, and planets are as distinct from one another as snowflakes are. But planets all start out in the same circumstances: the whirling disks of material surrounding young stars. ALMA’s made great progress imaging these disks and the telltale gaps excavated by young, still-forming planets.

But new images from ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) show a star and disk so young that there are no telltale gaps in the disk. Is this the moment that planets start to form?

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Arrokoth is Covered in Bizarre Mounds

The large mound structures that dominate one of the lobes of the Kuiper belt object Arrokoth are similar enough to suggest a common origin. Credit: Southwest Research Institute.

When New Horizons flew past Arrokoth in 2019, it revealed close-up images of this enigmatic Kuiper Belt Object for the first time. Astronomers are still studying all the data sent home by the spacecraft, trying to understand this two-lobed object, which looks like a red, flattened snowman.

Scientists have now identified 12 mounds on Arrokoth’s larger lobe, which are roughly the same size – about 5-kilometers long – as well as the same shape, color, and reflectivity. The scientists think their similar look is because they all formed the same way, where icy material slowly accumulated on the surface of Arrokoth.

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Hundreds of Free-Floating Planets Found in the Orion Nebula

This image shows the full survey of the inner Orion Nebula and Trapezium Cluster made using the NIRCam instrument on the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope. This is the long-wavelength colour composite, which focuses on the gas, dust, and molecules in the region with unprecedented sensitivity in the thermal infrared. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA / Science leads and image processing: M. McCaughrean, S. Pearson.

It appears that rogue planets – free floating worlds that aren’t gravitationally bound to a parent star – might be more common than we thought. New data from the James Webb Space Telescope have revealed 540 (yes, that’s right) planetary-mass objects in the Orion Nebula and Trapezium Cluster.

If confirmed, this would be by far the largest sample of rogue planets ever discovered.

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This Exoplanet is Probably a Solid Ball of Metal

An illustration of the exoplanet Gliese 367 b. It's an oddball planet that may be composed entirely of iron. Image Credit: NASA

We can’t understand nature without understanding its range. That’s apparent in exoplanet science and in our theories of planetary formation. Nature’s outliers and oddballs put pressure on our models and motivate scientists to dig deeper.

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JWST Sees Newly Forming Planets Swimming in Water

This artist’s concept portrays the star PDS 70 and its inner protoplanetary disk. New measurements by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have detected water vapor at distances of less than 100 million miles from the star – the region where rocky, terrestrial planets may be forming. This is the first detection of water in the terrestrial region of a disk already known to host two or more protoplanets, one of which is shown at upper right. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, J. Olmsted (STScI)

One big question about Earth’s formation is, where did all the water come from? New data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) shows newly forming planets in a system 370 light-years away are surrounded by water vapor in their orbits. Although astronomers have detected water vapor in protoplanetary disks before, this is the first time it’s been seen where the planets are forming.

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Some Star Systems Create a Planet Sandwich

Artist rendition of the new “sandwiched planet formation” theory examined for this study. (Credit: University of Warwick/Mark A. Garlick; License Type: Attribution (CC BY 4.0))

A recent study presented at the National Astronomy Meeting 2023 (NAM2023) examines a newly discovered planetary formation theory that challenges previous notions on how planets are formed in the disks of gas and dust surrounding young stars, also known as protoplanetary disks. Along with being presented at NAM2023, the study has also been submitted for peer-review to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and holds the potential to help scientists better understand not only how planets form, but how life could form on them, as well.

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JWST Looks at the Atmosphere of a Stormy, Steamy Mini-Neptune

This artist’s concept depicts the planet GJ 1214 b, a “mini-Neptune” with what is likely a steamy, hazy atmosphere. A new study based on observations by NASA’s Webb telescope provides insight into this type of planet, the most common in the galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Just because there’s no Mini-Neptune in our Solar System doesn’t mean they’re not common. They appear to be widespread throughout the Milky Way, and according to NASA, are the most common exoplanet type. GJ 1214 b is one of them.

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Planets Might Protect their Water Until their Star Settles Down

Artist's conception of early planetary formation from gas and dust around a young star. Outbursts from newborn and adolescent stars might drive planetary water beneath the surface of rocky worlds. Credit: NASA/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Creating rocky planets is a messy, dangerous, hot business. Planetesimals accrete together, which creates heat and pressure on the newborn world. The nearby adolescent star bombards them with intense radiation. That likely “bakes off” any surface oceans, lakes, or rivers, which is a disaster if you’re looking for places where life might arise or exist. That’s because life needs water and planets around these stars are among the most likely to harbor life. But, that doesn’t look too hopeful if the radiation steams the water away.

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