Scientists are about to discover the strangest planets in the Universe thanks to NASA’s Webb telescope

Scientists are about to discover the strangest planets in the Universe thanks to NASA’s Webb telescope

Scientists are about to discover the strangest planets in the Universe thanks to NASA’s Webb telescope

Artistic conception of the exoplanet 55 Cancri and close to its star (NASA)

Artistic conception of the exoplanet 55 Cancri and close to its star (NASA)

Exoplanets, worlds beyond our Solar System, are a wild group: some are gas giants like Jupiter, but they are hot due to orbit closer to their star than Mercury does the Sun, some are frozen bodies, while others may be worlds of water covered entirely by the ocean, and still others may sport clouds and rain of liquid gems.

And some of them, somewhere, could harbor life as we know. Or even how we don’t.

Scientists have discovered thousands of these worlds since the 1990s, and exoplanet science has already changed the way scientists think about the universe and our place within it.

But with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in December 2021, exoplanetary science has entered a new era.

The Webb telescope showcases new and sensitive instruments designed to work with observers, an extraordinarily powerful optics to peer deeply into exoplanets and decipher their secrets, characterizing the chemicals in their atmosphere to help trace their history and evolution. , understand their current climates and perhaps just capture signs of biological activity. Alien life.

Here’s what you need to know about the James Webb telescope and exoplanets.

What is an exoplanet?

An exoplanet is a planet that is not part of our Solar System, that is, it does not orbit the Sun. This could include rogue planets that were launched out of their own solar system to wander into interstellar space, but the exoplanets known today orbit around other stars.

More than 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered so far, most of which are planets larger than the size of Jupiter or Neptune, due to the difficulty in detecting such small objects at incredible distances next to a very bright object such as a star.

What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

The James Webb Space Telescope is the largest space telescope ever launched.

More than 20 years of development and construction, Web finally launched on Christmas Day 2021 and took nearly a month to reach its operational orbit approximately 1 million miles from Earth.

Webb sports a 16-foot diameter primary mirror made up of 18 gold-coated beryllium mirror segments and is tuned to collect light from the infrared end of the spectrum. This is the perfect frequency range for detecting very faint and distant objects, which is a part of Webb’s mission, and is also useful for spectroscopy, which characterizes the molecular nature of distant objects by splitting the light emitted by them based on frequency. . Because different chemicals and elements absorb infrared light at different frequencies, the absorption model can tell scientists what distant objects are made of.

This is where Webb and exoplanet science meet.

How are exoplanets discovered?

Telescopes for hunting exoplanets, such as NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), which has discovered more than 2,000 exoplanets since it was launched in 2018, often find planets by looking very closely at candidate stars.

Tess cannot resolve a direct image of a distant planet, but she can measure a drop in the brightness of a distant star as a planet crosses the face of the star from Tess’s point of view. Such an intersection is a transit, and this method of finding exoplanets is known as the transit method.

How will Webb study exoplanets?

The Webb telescope is not so much an exoplanet hunter or an exoplanet explorer. Using his powerful optics and infrared spectrometer, Webb can scan already known exoplanets and measure starlight filtering through their atmospheres to find out what compounds exist in their air and how many of these compounds there are. When Webb’s first five observations went public on July 12, one of those observations was not a photo, but the spectrum of the exoplanet Wasp 29 b.

Recent results of further studies on that first spectrum of exoplanets from Webb showed for the first time a strong and clear presence of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, wowing scientists about the possibilities of what Webb could reveal about other exoplanets in future. Changes in atmospheric composition heralded the emergence of life as we know it on Earth, primarily an increase in oxygen. It is possible that Webb, who is just starting a mission that is expected to last more than a decade, could capture such a transition to another alien, distant, but Earth-like world.

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