JWST detects carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an alien planet for the first time

The James Webb Space Telescope has detected carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a distant planet surrounding a Sun-like star for the first time.

Why is it important: The JWST is designed to study and help scientists understand the compositions of exoplanet atmospheres in hopes of ultimately determining exactly what might make a world habitable.

  • Although this detection was made in the atmosphere of a gas giant that is unlikely to support life, it could help scientists understand what a carbon dioxide signal might look like for a potentially habitable world.

What is happening: The planet called WASP-39b – which has almost the same mass as Saturn but is larger in diameter than Jupiter – is located about 700 light-years away.

  • The JWST caught a glimpse of the planet as it passed in front of its star, backlighting its bloated atmosphere and allowing the telescope to analyze what it was made of.
  • During a transit like this, the light from the star is partially obscured by the planet and the starlight is filtered through the atmosphere, allowing scientists to obtain a spectrum of colors representing various molecules. that make up the atmosphere.
  • “The detection of such a clear signal of carbon dioxide on WASP-39b bodes well for detecting atmospheres on smaller, Earth-sized planets,” said Natalie Batalha of the University of California at Santa Cruz, who led the team behind the discovery. statement.

More: “Carbon dioxide molecules are sensitive tracers of the history of planet formation,” said team member Mike Line from Arizona State University.

  • “By measuring this characteristic of carbon dioxide, we can determine the amount of solid matter versus the amount of gaseous matter that was used to form this gas giant planet,” Line added.
  • “Over the next decade, JWST will make this measurement for a variety of planets, providing insight into the details of planet formation and the uniqueness of our own solar system.”

Go further: How James Webb Space Telescope images are made

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