Traces of Carbon dioxide on Exoplanets
James Webber Telescope detected traces of Carbon dioxide on Exoplanets
James Webb Space Telescope stunned its audience when it sent back the first high-resolution images of distant objects in the cosmos. The recent images taken by the JWST of an exoplanet WASP-39b suggest traces of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of the celestial body. This marks the first unambiguous evidence of the presence of CO2 in a planet residing outside of our solar system. Moreover, the discovery points to how the exoplanet originated and foreshadows what’s to come as Webb investigates more cosmic realms.
On July 10, astronomers used the telescope’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph to examine the exoplanet. The finding, which was later reported in the journal Nature, provides reasonable optimism that the sophisticated JWST probe will offer a fresh understanding of the structure and development of extrasolar planets. The carbon dioxide molecules were discovered in the atmospheric composition of “WASP-39b,” a gas giant 700 light-years far orbiting a sun-like star.
WASP-39B – Discovery Through a Spectrum
When it comes to analyzing remotely sensed data, the timing of the image matters a lot. The image that the JWST took was well-timed by the researchers. First, it is vital to understand that WASP-39b is an exoplanet in orbit. During the orbit, part of the starlight is entirely overshadowed by the planet, exacerbating overall darkening, while others are distributed through the atmospheric belt. The atmosphere screens off some colors more than others relying on its composition, thickness, and cloud cover. Because various gases soak up distinct color combinations, scientists can use minor changes in the luminance of photons along various wavelengths to establish an atmosphere’s precise composition.
The exoplanet was seen traveling across the face of its star using an infrared telescope. Starlight penetrated the planet’s atmosphere during this time, where distinct molecules absorbed certain wavelengths of infrared light. Astronomers pondered if carbon dioxide might appear as a distinct flicker in the spectrum. NASA scientists, calling it one of the ‘most beautiful’ spectrums they had ever seen, cited the discovery of CO2 traces. The graph, or spectral response, discloses comprehensive details about the exoplanet’s atmosphere.
The exoplanet, which is more than 200 parsecs away from Earth, was identified through ground-based analysis and later observed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, operational from 2003 to 2020. The latter’s findings suggested that WASP-39b’s atmosphere may possess carbon dioxide, however, it was ambiguous.
A Hot Jupiter – Exoplanet
WASP-39b is termed Hot Jupiter by the scientific community as it has almost similar physical dimensions as that of Jupiter, with a diameter ranging 1.3 times larger and one-quarter the mass, however, it revolves around its star more closely, even more closely than the Sun and Mercury, making it an insanely hot planet. High temperatures in WASP-39b are evident from its extreme puffiness. Finishing one rotation in slightly more than four Earth days, the exoplanet was discovered in 2011 depending on ground-based detection techniques of the faint, recurring attenuation of starlight from its parent star when the planet transited or passed in front of it.
It’s logical to assume that a planet like Jupiter, produced from the same disc of matter as its star, would have about the same molecular makeup as that star. However, this is not the situation in our Solar System nor the scenario for WASP-39b. The significant carbon dioxide signature from the exoplanet shows that it is loaded with particles heavier than hydrogen and helium, typical of stars.
Theories of Origin
This begs the question as to why the exoplanet is made up of heavier particles than its parent star? Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz(UCSC), who leads Webb’s Transiting Exoplanet Early Release Science team, states that WASP-39b could have witnessed a heavy bombardment of asteroids and comets that could have delivered heavier objects to its atmosphere, just as in the case with Saturn. In its early origins, Saturn was also bombarded with comets and asteroids, which embedded heavier elements in its atmosphere.
Another possibility under observation after the discovery of carbon dioxide traces points towards the likelihood that WASP-39b could have evolved from elements in the chilly outer limits of its planetary framework and then drifted inwards. It cuddled up to its parent star at its penultimate settling place, which could have blown away part of the hydrogen in the exoplanet’s atmospheric belt, leading the denser components to become more concentrated and the exoplanet to become enriched in carbon dioxide than it was initially.
Possibility of Life?
Discovering carbon dioxide in a planet’s environment is the first step in discovering civilization outside Earth. Researchers do not believe WASP-39b has the potential to support life since it is just too near to its star. They don’t even anticipate the Webb telescope to detect conclusive evidence of alien existence. However, utilizing Webb to Identify carbon dioxide lays the groundwork for multiple scientific prospects in the future.
Researchers believe a combination of CO2 and CH4 in a planet’s environment could be a biosignature or evidence of biota. Some researchers at NASA describe WASP-39b’s pulse as “midway to a robust biosignature” Batalha’s team developed a conceptual framework
that predicts the atmospheric belt of the exoplanet possesses H2O, CO, and H2S, but not CH4.
The statistical plot was acquired when the JWST took an image of the planet as it crossed in front of its star. This plot indicates a spike where carbon dioxide on the exoplanet soaked up infrared wavelengths from the star’s radiation. A narrow hill between 4.1 and 4.6 microns in the consequent spectral range of the exoplanet’s atmospheric conditions provides the first definite documentary account for carbon dioxide discovered in a planet beyond the solar system.
Figure 2: On July 10, 2022, a transmission spectral pattern of the hot gas giant extrasolar planet WASP-39b obtained by Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) offers the very first conclusive proof for co2 in a planet beyond the solar system. This is also the first comprehensive exoplanet transmission spectrum yet measured, with wavelengths ranging from 3 to 5.5 microns.
Moreover, older telescopes, notably NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, had already detected the presence of water vapor, sodium, and potassium in the planet’s atmospheric composition, however, Webb’s unparalleled infrared capability has now established the occurrence of carbon dioxide on WASP-39b. This discovery, coupled with previous literature, could prove to be pivotal in establishing a theory for the origin of the exoplanet and much more.
According to NASA, this NIRSpec prism analysis of WASP-39 b is just one element of a bigger inquiry that involves measurements of the planet utilizing various Webb detectors, as well as studies of two additional orbiting exoplanets. The study, which is part of the Early
Release Science initiative was created to provide the exoplanet scientific community with strong Webb data as early as possible. The scientists will be able to employ these datasets for advanced research.
Recognizing the structure of a planet’s atmospheric composition is essential as it reveals information regarding the planet’s roots and evolution. Carbon dioxide molecules are precise detectors of the planet’s creation memoir. By studying this carbon dioxide characteristic, we can establish how much solid vs. how much gaseous substance was needed to assemble this gas giant planet. JWST will make this assessment for a range of planetary systems during the next decade, offering intelligence into the complexities of planet formation and the distinctiveness of our own planetary system.
In the end, when it comes to detecting extraterrestrial life, more sophisticated equipment is required. Even the JWST, with its massive sensors, is not capable enough to find and confirm the existence of life outside our solar system. Detecting traces of life will almost certainly necessitate an observatory considerably more sophisticated than JWST. Still, Webb can deliver concrete evidence of elements and conditions vital to sustaining life. Moreover, this evidence will benefit the scientific community in pinpointing where to focus most of their efforts to bear fruitful results.
Full resolution Image: Download the full-resolution, uncompressed version and supporting visuals from the Space Telescope Science Institute
Read more about the James Webber telescope – The James Webber telescope Isn’t Your Typical Telescope