James Webb Space Telescope detects carbon dioxide on planet outside solar system

A University of Central Florida researcher is part of an international team that used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to capture definitive evidence of carbon dioxide in a planet’s atmosphere gas giant orbiting a sun-like star 700 light-years away.

The finding was published online today and will appear in the journal Nature.

The discovery provides insight into the composition and formation of the planet and demonstrates JWST’s ability to detect and measure carbon dioxide in the thinner atmospheres of small rocky planets.

This is the first detailed and indisputable evidence of carbon dioxide ever detected on a planet outside the solar system. The planet is called WASP-39 b and is in the constellation Virgo. The team used JWST’s near-infrared spectrograph, or NIRSpec, and also detected another molecule that has yet to be identified.

“It’s a very, very clear detection,” says study co-author Joseph Harrington, a UCF Pegasus professor of physics. “It’s a level of detection that knocks you over the head.”

“All previous observatories, Hubble, Spitzer, ground-based, etc., had trouble detecting carbon dioxide,” Harrington says. “Before, we had a very loud signal and you really couldn’t see anything. We now have very clear detection. It really is a demonstration of what the telescope can do.

No observatory has ever measured such subtle differences in the brightness of so many individual colors in the 3-5.5 micron range in an exoplanet transmission spectrum before. Access to this part of the spectrum is crucial for measuring the abundance of gases like water and methane, as well as carbon dioxide, which are thought to exist in many types of exoplanets.

Understanding the composition of a planet’s atmosphere is important because it tells researchers about the origin of the planet and how it evolved.

“Detecting the composition of the atmosphere says a lot about the chemistry of this planet,” says Harrington. “When you learn about the balance of chemicals in the atmosphere, it has implications for life. The amounts of carbon versus oxygen are quite important elements, since we are made of carbon and oxygen. The goal of all exoplanet science is really to characterize Earth-like planets and potentially find life.

Harrington’s role in the study included developing the proposal and editing the manuscript. He and his students developed open source analysis tools that will be used later in the project. The team of co-authors included more than 130 researchers from 15 countries.

One of the co-authors, Kevin Stevenson, an astronomer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, is the project’s co-principal investigator and has been involved with it since its inception.

Stevenson earned his Ph.D. in Physics and Planetary Sciences from UCF in 2012 and was advised by Harrington.

He said his work at UCF using the Spitzer Space Telescope to study the atmospheres of several hot Jupiter exoplanets at mid-infrared wavelengths, the same wavelengths covered by the JWST, allowed him to better assess the quality and accuracy of its data.

“JWST is already revolutionizing the science of transiting exoplanets,” says Stevenson.

He says the team is preparing four more articles which they hope to publish soon.

“We will seek to identify the mysterious molecule close to 4 microns, looking for sodium and potassium at short wavelengths and limiting the presence of other molecules, such as water vapour, methane and monoxide. carbon,” he says. “Each of these four papers will present data from the same planet, WASP-39b, but using different instrument modes. This allows us to study the atmosphere of the same planet over a range of wavelengths and spectral resolutions.

The NIRSpec prism sighting of WASP-39b is just part of a larger survey that is observing this planet and two others using multiple instruments. The survey, part of the Early Release Science program, was designed to provide the exoplanet research community with robust JWST data as soon as possible.

“The goal is to quickly analyze observations from Early Release Science and develop open source tools that the scientific community can use,” explains Vivien Parmentier from the University of Oxford. “This allows for contributions from around the world and ensures that the best possible science will come out of the next few decades of observations.”

The JWST is the world’s first space science observatory. It will solve the mysteries of our solar system, look beyond distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and people’s place in it. JWST is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

Harrington received his doctorate in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the physics department at UCF, which is part of the college of science, in 2006. He began observing and modeling giant planets as an undergraduate student at MIT. His pre-impact model of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9’s collision with Jupiter in 1994, as part of his PhD at MIT. thesis in planetary sciences, was published on the cover of Nature and triggered the global media frenzy around this event. Harrington then held a National Research Council fellowship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, during which he modeled the aftermath of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact and also identified the majority of known planetary waves on planets other than Earth. From 1997 to 2006 he worked as a research scientist at Cornell University, where his interests shifted to the observation of extrasolar planets. He was part of the team that first measured light from an extrasolar planet, a result published in Nature in April 2005. He continues his work on exoplanets at UCF. In 2020, he was named a UCF Pegasus Professor. He served as chair of the UCF Faculty Senate and the UCF Board of Trustees in 2020-2022.

Title of the study: Identification of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet

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