NASA’s James Webb discovers the chemistry of an exoplanet’s atmosphere that could help find aliens

NASA’s James Webb could help in the search for alien life: Telescope detects particles and clouds in an exoplanet’s atmosphere that can be used to determine if a distant world harbors life

  • NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has detected particles and atoms in the atmosphere of an exoplanet located 700 light-years from Earth.
  • The telescope also identified signs of active chemistry and clouds that had not been seen before
  • The astronomers said the details could help them look at an atmosphere that could hold signs of life and tell them how the exoplanet formed from the disk of gas and dust surrounding the parent star in its younger years.

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NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) could be an important player in the search for alien life after it successfully revealed the composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere in unprecedented detail.

JWST’s powerful instruments have picked up atoms and molecules, along with signs of energetic chemistry and clouds — both of which Hubble and Spitzer couldn’t detect when they observed the planet and those bearing evidence of signs of life.

Astronomers used WASP-39b, a hot Saturn 700 light-years from Earth, to test the telescope’s capabilities, and the telescope used its infrared capabilities to pick up colorful chemical signatures that are undetectable in visible light.

Deemed a “game-changer,” the new insights could reveal how this exoplanet formed from the disk of gas and dust surrounding its parent star in its younger years.

The composition of the atmosphere of hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-39 b has been revealed by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. This graphic shows the elements detected by the telescope

“We have observed an exoplanet with multiple instruments that together provide a wide range of infrared spectrum and a range of chemical signatures that can be traced back to Earth,” Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who contributed to and helped coordinate the new research, said in a statement. Even inaccessible [this mission].

“Data like this is a game changer.”

WASP-39b orbits a host star eight times closer than the planet Mercury to our sun, which astronomers believe should bring a deeper understanding of how these processes affect the diversity of planets observed in the galaxy.

To unravel the secrets of an exoplanet, Japan’s Earth Planet tracked the planet as it passed in front of its star, allowing some of its light to filter through its atmosphere.

NASA shared Tuesday’s announcement: “Different types of chemicals in the atmosphere absorb different colors of the starlight spectrum, so the missing colors tell astronomers which molecules are present.”

Astronomers tested the telescopes' capabilities with the exoplanet WASP-39b, located 700 light-years from Earth.  James Webb was able to pick up atoms and molecules, along with signs of energetic chemistry and clouds—features that Hubble and Spitzer couldn't detect when they observed the planet.

Astronomers tested the telescope’s capabilities using the exoplanet WASP-39b, located 700 light-years from Earth. James Webb was able to

“By viewing the universe in infrared light, Webb can pick up chemical signatures that are undetectable in visible light.”

The telescope has also detected a range of elements, including sodium (Na), potassium (K) and water vapor (H20), in the exoplanets’ atmospheres.

These confirm what was previously captured by space and ground-based telescope observations, but JWST found additional fingerprints of water at these longer wavelengths that had not been seen before.

Also found in the new data is carbon dioxide, which is detected at an even higher resolution, providing double that previously observed.

And while carbon monoxide has been detected, astronomers have not identified methane (CH4) and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) in the data.

Hannah Wakeford, an astrophysicist at the University of Bristol in the UK who studies exoplanet atmospheres, said in a statement: [the telescope] She will show us, but it was more subtle, more varied, and more beautiful than I actually thought.

Having such a complete list of chemical components in an exoplanet’s atmosphere also gives scientists a glimpse into the abundances of different elements around each other, such as carbon-to-oxygen ratios or potassium-to-oxygen ratios.

This, in turn, provides insight into how this planet – and perhaps others – formed from the disk of gas and dust surrounding its parent star in its younger years.

WASP-39 b’s chemical inventory suggests a history of the crashes and mergers of smaller bodies called planetesimals to create the ultimate planet-goliath.

“Sulphur abundance,” Kazumasa Ohno, an exoplanet researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz who worked on Webb’s data, said in a statement. [relative to] Hydrogen indicates that the planet has presumably experienced a large buildup of young planets that could be born [these ingredients] in the atmosphere.

The data also indicates that oxygen is more abundant than carbon in the atmosphere. This likely indicates that WASP-39 b originally formed far from the central star.

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