(CNN) — The James Webb Space Telescope captured a detailed molecular and chemical portrait of the skies of a distant planet, marking another first for the exoplanet science community.
WASP-39b, also known as Bocaprins, can be found orbiting a star about 700 light-years away. It is an exoplanet—a planet outside our solar system—as massive as Saturn but much closer to its host star, generating an estimated 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (871 degrees Celsius) from its gases, according to NASA. This “hot Saturn” It was one of the first exoplanets to be examined by the Webb telescope. when it began its regular scientific operations.
The new readings provide a complete breakdown of Bocaprins’ atmosphere, including atoms, molecules, cloud formations (which appear to be broken, rather than a single, uniform blanket as scientists expected), and even signs of photochemistry caused by its host star.
“We are observing the exoplanet with multiple instruments that, together, provide a wide swath of the infrared spectrum and a panoply of chemical fingerprints inaccessible until (this mission),” said Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who contributed and helped coordinate the new research, in a NASA statement. “Data like this is a game changer.”
The atmospheric big picture
The new data provided the first sign in an exoplanet’s atmosphere of sulfur dioxide, a molecule produced from chemical reactions triggered by the planet’s host star and its high-energy light. On Earth, the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer is similarly created from heat and sunlight in a photochemical reaction.
Bocaprins’ proximity to its host star makes it an ideal subject for studying such star-planet connections. The planet is eight times closer to its host star than Mercury is to our sun.
“This is the first time we have seen concrete evidence of photochemistry — chemical reactions initiated by energetic starlight — on exoplanets,” Shang-Min Tsai, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, said in a NASA statement. “I see this as a really promising prospect for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.”
Other compounds detected in Bocaprins’ atmosphere include sodium, potassium, and water vapor, confirming previous observations made by other space and ground-based telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope.
Having such a comprehensive list of chemical ingredients in an exoplanet’s atmosphere provides insight into how this planet, and perhaps others, formed. Bocaprins’ diverse chemical inventory suggests that multiple smaller bodies, called planetesimals, coalesced to create an eventual giant planet, similar in size to the second-largest planet in our solar system.
“This is just the first of many exoplanets that JWST will study in detail. … We are already getting very exciting results,” Néstor Espinoza, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, told CNN. “This is just the beginning.”
The findings are favorable to highlight the potential of the Webb instruments for exoplanet research. By revealing a detailed description of an exoplanet’s atmosphere, the telescope has exceeded scientists’ expectations and promises a new phase of exploration into the wide variety of exoplanets in the galaxy, according to NASA.
“We will be able to see the big picture of exoplanet atmospheres,” Laura Flagg, a Cornell University researcher and member of the international team that analyzed Webb’s data, said in a statement. “It’s incredibly exciting to know that everything is going to be rewritten. That’s one of the best parts of being a scientist.”