The James Webb Telescope has already found previously undiscovered water on a distant planet

aOn Tuesday, a team of NASA astronomers revealed the first long-awaited images taken by the pioneering James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

From the full-infrared image of the distant universe to the remarkable image of the Carina Nebula, the world has not been disappointed. Along with the stunning photos, Earthlings got a sneak peek at what kind of science JWST will be conducting as it searches for habitable exoplanets in the universe. In fact, astronomers have revealed the most detailed measurements of the atmosphere of an exoplanet outside our solar system to date – and there appear to be indications of water, fog and clouds in the planet’s atmosphere that were previously unknown.

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The observed exoplanet in question is called WASP-96b, and it is one of more than 5,000 planets that have been confirmed to exist in the Milky Way outside our solar system so far. Cataloging and discovering exoplanets, that is, planets in other solar systems, is an impressive human feat: because they are much smaller than stars, and therefore fainter, they are much more difficult to see. In fact, the first exoplanet wasn’t discovered until 1992 – meaning that any science fiction produced before that time that included explorers visiting other planets was based on speculation.

Exoplanet WASP-96b is located about 1,150 light-years away in the constellation Phoenix, and was first discovered by scientists in 2014. It is a rather unusual exoplanet, as no similar planet exists in the Earth’s solar system. For example, WASP-96b orbits its star every 3.4 days, which means temperatures hover around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. (For comparison, Mercury, the planet closest to our sun, rotates once every 88 days. Nor does our solar system have gas giants close to the sun.)

As a gaseous planet less than half the size of Jupiter (but 1.2 times larger in diameter than Jupiter), NASA describes WASP-96 b as “more bloated” than any planet orbiting our sun.


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Unusually, from just 6.4 hours of observation, JWST took incredibly accurate measurements of the exoplanets that revealed a distinctive fingerprint of water, and evidence of fog and clouds. Previous studies of WASP-96b have not detected such signatures.

The measurements, the most detailed of their kind, were made by the JWST’s Near Infrared and Slit Spectrophotometer (NIRISS), which measured light from an exoplanet as it passed its star. The light curve showed a change in brightness and individual wavelengths of infrared light between 0.6 and 2.8 μm.

The measurements also revealed a subtle albeit somewhat familiar atmosphere, one with “an unmistakable signature of water, indications of fog, and evidence of clouds that were thought to be nonexistent based on previous observations”.

“From our viewing angle, this passes in front of its star every three and a half days, allowing a small portion of the star’s light to pass through its atmosphere and reveal its composition,” Avi Loeb, former chair of the Harvard Department of Astronomy, explained to Salon via email. “These measurements help us better understand how gas giants in the solar system form.”

The measurements confirmed some of what scientists already know: the size, orbit, and mere existence of WASP-96b. But as previously mentioned, it also revealed a subtle albeit somewhat familiar atmosphere, a cover with “an unmistakable signature of water, indications of fog, and evidence of clouds that were thought to be non-existent based on previous observations,” as NASA explained. .

So, does this mean that life could exist on this exoplanet? Water is a major sign of life beyond Earth, after all.

“Such planets are not thought to host life, because they do not have a thin atmosphere over a rocky surface, like Earth,” Loeb explained. The mixture of liquid water and a solid surface is believed to be a key ingredient in the ‘life as we know it’ recipe.

Nevertheless, the measurements give the world a preview of how accurate and fast JWST might be able to fulfill its task of surveying the atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanets. As previously reported, JWST may be Even being able enough to monitor industrial pollution in the atmosphere of an alien planet as well – revealing intelligent alien civilizations, extinct or still existing.

NASA said the next step for JWST is to “measure the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, constrain the abundance of various elements such as carbon and oxygen, and estimate the atmospheric temperature at depth.”

“They can then use this information to make conclusions about the planet’s overall composition, as well as how, when and where it formed,” NASA stated.

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