JWST Finds a Clear, Unambiguous Signal for Carbon Dioxide in an Exoplanet’s Atmosphere

A transmission spectrum of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-39 b, captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) on July 10, 2022, reveals the first definitive evidence for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet outside the Solar System. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and L. Hustak (STScI). Science: The JWST Transiting Exoplanet Community Early Release Science Team

An early – and exciting — science result from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was announced today: the first unambiguous detection of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. This is the first detailed evidence for carbon dioxide ever detected in a planet outside our Solar System.

Continue reading “JWST Finds a Clear, Unambiguous Signal for Carbon Dioxide in an Exoplanet’s Atmosphere”

Astronomer Working With Webb Said the new Images “Almost Brought him to Tears.” We’ll see Them on July 12th

The James Webb Space Telescope being placed in the Johnson Space Center’s historic Chamber A on June 20th, 2017. Credit: NASA/JSC

The scientific and astronomical community are eagerly waiting for Tuesday, July 12th, to come around. On this day, the first images taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be released! According to a previous statement by the agency, these images will include the deepest views of the Universe ever taken and spectra obtained from an exoplanet atmosphere. In another statement issued yesterday, the images were so beautiful that they almost brought Thomas Zarbuchen – Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) – to tears!

Continue reading “Astronomer Working With Webb Said the new Images “Almost Brought him to Tears.” We’ll see Them on July 12th”

Hubble Checks the Weather on Hot Jupiters. Forecast: 100% Chance of Hellish Conditions

While the Hubble Space Telescope celebrates 32 years in orbit, like a fine wine, it has only gotten better with age as it continues to study the Universe and teach us more about our place in the cosmos. Hubble doesn’t just take breathtaking images of our Universe, but it also studies our own solar system, galaxies, and exoplanets, as well. It is this last subject where Hubble has recently been hard at work, though.

Continue reading “Hubble Checks the Weather on Hot Jupiters. Forecast: 100% Chance of Hellish Conditions”

Astronomers Measure the Atmosphere on a Planet Hundreds of Light-Years Away

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s data was used to analyze the atmosphere of the super-hot exoplanet WASP-79b, located 780 light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. Among exoplanets, WASP-79b is among the largest ever observed. The planet is larger than Jupiter, and its very deep, hazy atmosphere sizzles at 1,650 degrees Celsius – the temperature of molten glass. The Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories measured how starlight is filtered through the planet's atmosphere, allowing for its chemical composition to be analyzed. Hubble has detected the presence of water vapor. The surprise in recently published results, is that the planet's sky doesn't have any evidence for an atmospheric phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering, where certain colors of light are dispersed by very fine dust particles in the upper atmosphere. Rayleigh scattering is what makes Earth's skies blue by scattering the shorter (bluer) wavelengths of sunlight. Because WASP-79b doesn't seem to have this phenomenon, the daytime sky would likely be yellowish, researchers say. Link: NASA Press Release

The field of extrasolar planet research has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years. To date, astronomers have relied on space-based and ground-based telescopes to confirm the existence of 4,566 exoplanets in 3,385 systems, with another 7,913 candidates awaiting confirmation. More importantly, in the past few years, the focus of exoplanet studies has slowly shifted from the process of discovery towards characterization.

In particular, astronomers are making great strides when it comes to the characterization of exoplanet atmospheres. Using the Gemini South Telescope (GST) in Chile, an international team led by Arizona State University (ASU) was able to characterize the atmosphere of a “hot Jupiter” located 340 light-years away. This makes them the first team to directly measure the chemical composition of a distant exoplanet’s atmosphere, a significant milestone in the hunt for habitable planets beyond our Solar System.

Continue reading “Astronomers Measure the Atmosphere on a Planet Hundreds of Light-Years Away”

An Exoplanet Reaches 2400 C in One Hemisphere. Does it Really Rain Iron?

The fiery exoplanet WASP-76b – a so-called hot Jupiter, where it rains iron – may be hotter than previously thought. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

WASP-76b is an ultra-hot Jupiter about 640 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Pisces. A few years ago it gained notoriety for being so hot that iron falls as rain. It’s tidally locked to its star, and the planet’s star-facing hemisphere can reach temperatures as high as 2400 Celsius, well above iron’s 1538 C melting point.

Scientists have been studying the planet since its discovery in 2013, and new evidence suggests that it’s even hotter than thought. But, almost disappointingly, there might be no iron rain after all.

Continue reading “An Exoplanet Reaches 2400 C in One Hemisphere. Does it Really Rain Iron?”

Astronomers Detect Clouds on an Exoplanet, and Even Measure Their Altitude

Credit:

The search for planets beyond our Solar System has grown immensely during the past few decades. To date, 4,521 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,353 systems, with an additional 7,761 candidates awaiting confirmation. With so many distant worlds available for study (and improved instruments and methods), the process of exoplanet studies has been slowly transitioning away from discovery towards characterization.

For example, a team of international scientists recently showed how combining data from multiple observatories allowed them to reveal the structure and composition of an exoplanet’s upper atmosphere. The exoplanet in question is WASP-127b, a “hot Saturn” that orbits a Sun-like star located about 525 light-years away. These findings preview how astronomers will characterize exoplanet atmospheres and determine if they are conducive to life as we know it.

Continue reading “Astronomers Detect Clouds on an Exoplanet, and Even Measure Their Altitude”

Astronomers Have Found the Perfect Exoplanet to Study Another World’s Atmosphere

An artist's rendering of TOI-1231 b, a Neptune-like planet about 90 light years away from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has found a new planet, and the discovery of this sub-Neptune exoplanet has scientists excited about atmospheres. The combination of the planet’s size, its thick atmosphere, and its orbit around a small M-class star close to Earth provides researchers with an opportunity to learn more about exoplanet atmospheres. We’re getting better and better at finding exoplanets, and studying their atmospheres is the next step in understanding them as a whole.

Continue reading “Astronomers Have Found the Perfect Exoplanet to Study Another World’s Atmosphere”

How To Search the Chemical Makeup of Exoplanet Atmospheres for Hints at Their History

Author’s note – this article was written with Dr. Vincent Kofman, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), working in the Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration (SEEC), and the lead author on the research it discusses.

Thousands of exoplanets have been discovered in the recent decades. Planet hunters like TESS and Kepler, as well as numerous ground-based efforts, have pushed the field and we are starting to get a total number of planets that will allow us to perform effective statistical analysis on some of them.

Not only do the detected number of planets show us how common they are; it exposes our lack of understanding about how planets form, what conditions are present, and when planets may be habitable. The transit detection of an exoplanet primarily yields the orbital period, or the length of a year on the planet, and the relative size of the planet with respect to the star. The next steps are to characterize the planet. This usually requires follow up studies, using different observational strategies and more powerful telescopes.

Continue reading “How To Search the Chemical Makeup of Exoplanet Atmospheres for Hints at Their History”

Meteorites Hold Early Atmospheres From Across the Solar System

Since they were formed in the early solar system, many meteorites offer an unadulterated view into what that solar system was made out of, or what happened to it as we reported before.  Recently a team of researchers led by Maggie Thompson at University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) took a look at the chemical composition of three different chondritic meteorites, which have largely been untouched since before the planets were formed.  Their composition was different than current models predicted, and could lead to a better understanding of early planetary atmospheres.

Continue reading “Meteorites Hold Early Atmospheres From Across the Solar System”

If Astronomers see Isoprene in the Atmosphere of an Alien World, There’s a Good Chance There’s Life There

Artists’s impression of the rocky super-Earth HD 85512 b. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

It is no exaggeration to say that the study of extrasolar planets has exploded in recent decades. To date, 4,375 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,247 systems, with another 5,856 candidates awaiting confirmation. In recent years, exoplanet studies have started to transition from the process of discovery to one of characterization. This process is expected to accelerate once next-generation telescopes become operational.

As a result, astrobiologists are working to create comprehensive lists of potential “biosignatures,” which refers to chemical compounds and processes that are associated with life (oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, etc.) But according to new research by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), another potential biosignature we should be on the lookout for is a hydrocarbon called isoprene (C5H8).

Continue reading “If Astronomers see Isoprene in the Atmosphere of an Alien World, There’s a Good Chance There’s Life There”