james webb space telescope (2)

WASP-39b and CO2...


Researchers detected carbon dioxide in WASP-39b’s atmosphere when the exoplanet crossed in front of its star. The data plot shows a telltale blip where infrared wavelengths from the star’s light were absorbed by carbon dioxide on the exoplanet. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Leah Hustak (STScI), Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

Topics: Astrophysics, Chemistry, ESA, Exoplanets, James Webb Space Telescope, NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope — already famous for its mesmerizing images of the cosmos — has done it again. The telescope has captured the first unambiguous evidence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet outside the Solar System.

The finding not only provides tantalizing hints about how the exoplanet formed but is also a harbinger for what’s to come as Webb studies more and more alien worlds. It was reported in a manuscript posted on the preprint server arXiv1, ahead of peer review, and is expected to be published in Nature in the coming days. (Nature’s news team is independent of its journals team.)

The discovery is presented in a data plot with none of the luster of Webb’s previous images — which showed galaxies locked in a cosmic dance and radiant clouds in a stellar nursery. But Jessie Christiansen, an astronomer at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, describes the data as “gorgeous”.

The plot, or spectrum, reveals detailed information about the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-39b, called a hot Jupiter by scientists because it has a diameter similar to Jupiter’s but orbits its star much more closely than Mercury orbits the Sun, making it incredibly hot. The planet, which is more than 200 parsecs from Earth, was initially discovered during ground-based observations2 and later detected by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which operated between 2003 and 2020. Data from the latter suggested3 that WASP-39b’s atmosphere might contain carbon dioxide, but they were inconclusive.

Webb telescope spots CO2 on exoplanet for first time: what it means for finding alien life, Sharron Hall, Nature

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From Redshift to Enlightenment...

Topics: Astrobiology, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Carl Sagan, James Webb Space Telescope, SETI

The relief was as deep as the stakes were high. At 7:20 A.M. (ET), the rocket carrying the largest, most ambitious space telescope in history cleared the launchpad in French Guiana, and the members of mission control at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore roared their elation.

The suspense was not quite over. Half an hour postlaunch, the telescope still needed to decouple from its host rocket, after which it had to deploy solar panels to partly power its journey. Only after that first deployment proved successful, said a NASA spokesperson in a statement to Scientific American, would “we know we have a mission.”

Astronomers have more riding on the rocket than the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Also at risk is the viability of NASA’s vast space-science portfolio, if not the future of astronomy itself. As the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), JWST is one of those once-in-a-generation scientific projects that can strain the patience of government benefactors, as well as the responsible agency’s credibility, but also define a field for decades to come—and possibly redefine it forever.

The telescope that would become JWST was already under discussion even before HST launched in April 1990. By orbiting Earth, HST would have a line of sight free of the optical distortions endemic to our planet’s atmosphere. It would therefore be able to see farther across the universe (and, given that the speed of light is finite, farther back in time) than any terrestrial telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope Has Launched: Now Comes the Hard Part, Richard Panek, Scientific American

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