(CNN) — NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured the first clear evidence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, a planet outside our solar system.

The exoplanet, WASP-39b, is a hot gas giant orbiting a Sun-like star 700 light-years from Earth and is part of a larger Webb investigation that includes two other transiting planets, according to The NASA. Understanding the atmospheric composition of planets like WASP-39b is critical to understanding their origins and how they evolved, the agency said in a Press release.

“Carbon dioxide molecules are sensitive tracers in the history of planet formation,” Mike Line, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, said in the news release. Line is a member of the JWST Transiting Exoplanet Community Early Release science team, which did the research.

The team observed carbon dioxide using the telescope’s near-infrared spectrograph, one of Webb’s four science instruments, to look at WASP-39b’s atmosphere. Their research is part of the Early Launch Science Program, an initiative designed to provide telescope data to the exoplanet research community as soon as possible, guiding further scientific study and discovery.

This recent finding has been accepted for publication in the journal Nature.

“By measuring this feature of carbon dioxide we can determine how much solid material there is compared to how much gaseous material was used to form this gas giant planet,” Line explained. “In the next decade, JWST will make this measurement for a variety of planets, providing insight into the details of how they form and the uniqueness of our own solar system.”

A new era in exoplanet research

The webb telescope The highly sensitive satellite was launched on Christmas Day 2021 into its current orbit 1.5 million kilometers (nearly 932,000 miles) from Earth. By observing the universe with longer wavelengths of light than other space telescopes use, Webb can study the beginning of time more closely, search for unseen formations among the earliest galaxies, and peer into dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are currently forming.

In the spectrum captured from the planet’s atmosphere, the researchers saw a small hill between 4.1 and 4.6 microns, a “clear signal of carbon dioxide,” team leader Natalie Batalha, a professor of astronomy, said in the statement. and astrophysics at the University of California at Santa Cruz. (A micron is a unit of length equal to one millionth of a meter.)

“Depending on the atmosphere’s composition, thickness, and cloudiness, it absorbs some colors of light more than others, making the planet appear larger,” said team member Munazza Alam, a postdoctoral fellow in the Earth Laboratory. and Planets from the Carnegie Institution for Science. “We can analyze these minute differences in the size of the planet to reveal the chemical composition of the atmosphere.”

Access to this part of the light spectrum, made possible by the Webb telescope, is crucial for measuring the abundance of gases such as methane and water, as well as carbon dioxide, which are thought to exist on many exoplanets, according to the POT. Because individual gases absorb different combinations of colors, researchers can examine “tiny differences in the brightness of transmitted light across a spectrum of wavelengths to determine exactly what an atmosphere is made of,” NASA explained.

Previously, NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer telescopes discovered water vapor, sodium and potassium in the planet’s atmosphere. “Previous observations of this planet with Hubble and Spitzer had given us tantalizing clues that carbon dioxide might be present,” Batalha said. “The JWST data showed an unmistakable carbon dioxide feature that was so prominent it practically screamed at us.”

What are the best photos of space captured by the Webb telescope? 1:10“As soon as the data appeared on my screen, I was struck by the incredible carbon dioxide feature,” said Zafar Rustamkulov, a member of the team and a graduate student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Morton K. Blaustein at the Johns Hopkins University. “It was a special moment, crossing an important threshold in exoplanet science,” he added.

Discovered in 2011, WASP-39b’s mass is about the same as that of Saturn and about a quarter that of Jupiter, while its diameter is 1.3 times that of Jupiter. Since the exoplanet orbits very close to its star, it completes one circuit in just over four Earth days.