Monday, September 26, 2022

First Look: The exoplanet WASP-96b

Impressive space images aside, most of the James Webb Space Telescope’s deeper scientific work – the stuff we come from, we’re all alone – will likely involve tiny squiggles in the graphics of a planet orbiting a distant planet. Star.

Many astronomers want to sniff out which molecules spin and float through the atmosphere of planets around other stars. But they face at least two major obstacles. First, attempting such a measurement overwhelms even the best contemporary technology. And second, many of the planets we’ve tried to study so far appear to be covered in layers of clouds, which block our gaze.

Enter Webb’s glimpse of WASP-96b, a gas giant planet orbiting a Sun-like star 1,120 light-years from Earth. Its mass is greater than that of Saturn, but only about half that of Jupiter. Fortunately, for whatever reason, ground-based observations in 2018 proved that this particular planet has clear skies, a boon for astronomers hoping to peek.

The new Webb measurements also show evidence of water vapor, haze and some previously invisible clouds.

“This is great to see,” said Jonathan Fortney, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He added that the traces of clouds where none were expected is a surprise. “I do not know what to say!”

Seeing all this took careful time. From our solar system’s perspective, WASP-96b scans the surface of its star every three and a half days, blotting out a tiny fraction of the starlight during this transit pass. During that time, as Webb watched, even fewer rays of light passed through the ring of atmosphere around the planet, providing the spectral fingerprints of floating molecules.

Over time, measurements like these should help us understand the birth of gas giant planets like WASP-96b — and our own Saturn and Jupiter as well — during the formation of star systems, clock weather patterns sweeping around them, and, perhaps, for smaller worlds, they enable searches for signs of life.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Deskhttps://nationworldnews.com
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