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The James Webb Space Telescope may add another cosmic achievement to your list: The space observatory has been used to confirm the existence of an exoplanet for the first time.
The celestial body, known as LHS 475 b and located outside our solar system, is almost exactly the same size as Earth. The rocky world is 41 light-years away in the constellation Octans.
Previous data collected by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, had suggested the planet might exist.
A team of researchers, led by staff Astronomer Kevin Stevenson and postdoctoral fellow Jacob Lustig-Yaeger at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, observed the target using Webb. They observed dips in starlight as the planet passed in front of its host star, called a transit, and observed that two transits occurred.
“There is no doubt that the planet is there. Webb’s pristine data validates this,” said Lustig-Yaeger. in a sentence.
The planet’s discovery was announced Wednesday at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.
“The fact that it’s also a small, rocky planet is impressive for the observatory,” Stevenson said.
Webb is the only telescope that has the ability to characterize the atmospheres of Earth-sized exoplanets. The research team used Webb to scan the planet through multiple wavelengths of light to see if it has an atmosphere. For now, the team has not been able to draw any definitive conclusions, but the telescope’s sensitivity detected a variety of molecules that were present.
“There are some terrestrial-type atmospheres that we can rule out,” Lustig-Yaeger said. “It cannot have a thick methane-dominated atmosphere, similar to that of Saturn’s moon Titan.”
Astronomers will have another chance to observe the planet again during the summer and perform follow-up analysis on the potential presence of an atmosphere.
Webb’s detections also revealed that the planet is a few hundred degrees hotter than our planet. If the researchers detect any clouds at LHS 475 b, they may turn out to be more like Venus, which is considered Earth’s hotter twin with a carbon dioxide atmosphere.
“We are at the forefront of the study of small, rocky exoplanets,” said Lustig-Yaeger. “We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what their atmospheres might look like.”
The planet completes a single orbit around its red dwarf host star every 2 Earth days. Since the star is less than half the temperature of our sun, it’s possible that the planet could still maintain an atmosphere despite its proximity to the star.
The researchers believe their discovery will be just the first of many in Webb’s future.
“These first observational results of a rocky, Earth-sized planet open the door to many future possibilities for studying atmospheres of rocky planets with Webb,” said Mark Clampin, director of the Division of Astrophysics at NASA Headquarters, in a statement. “Webb brings us ever closer to a new understanding of Earth-like worlds outside the Solar System, and the mission is just beginning.”
More Webb observations were shared at Wednesday’s meeting, including never-before-seen views of a dusty disk circling a nearby red dwarf star.
The telescope images mark the first time such a disk has been captured in these infrared wavelengths of light, which are invisible to the naked eye.
The dust disk around the star, called AU Mic, represents the remnants of planet formation. When small solid objects called planetesimals, a planet in formation, collided with each other, they left a large dusty ring around the star and formed a disk of debris.
“A debris disk is continually replenished by collisions of planetesimals. By studying it, we get a unique window into the recent dynamical history of this system,” said study lead author Kellen Lawson, a postdoctoral program fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and a member of the team. research study that AU Mic studied.
Webb’s capabilities allowed astronomers to see the region near the star. Observations and data from him could provide information to help in the search for giant planets that form wide orbits in planetary systems, not unlike Jupiter and Saturn in our solar system.
The AU Mic disk is located 32 light-years away in the constellation Microscopium. The star is about 23 million years old, so planet formation has already ceased around the star, as that process typically takes less than 10 million years, according to the researchers. Other telescopes have detected two planets orbiting the star.
“This system is one of the few examples of a young star, with known exoplanets, and a debris disk that is close enough and bright enough to be studied holistically using Webb’s exceptionally powerful instruments,” said co-author of the study. study, Josh Schlieder, principal investigator of the Center. observing program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
The Webb telescope was also used to look inside NGC 346, a star-forming region located in a neighboring dwarf galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud.
about 2 billion 3 billion years after the big bang that created the universe, galaxies were ablaze with star-forming fireworks. This peak of star formation is called “cosmic noon.”
“A galaxy during cosmic noon would not have NGC 346, as the Small Magellanic Cloud does; it would have thousands,” said Margaret Meixner, an astronomer with the Association for Universities Space Research and principal investigator on the research team. in a sentence.
“Even if NGC 346 is now the only furiously star-forming massive cluster in its galaxy, it offers us a great opportunity to investigate the conditions that existed at cosmic noon.”
Observing how stars form in this galaxy allows astronomers to compare star formation in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
In Webb’s new image, forming stars can be seen dragging ribbon-like gas and dust from a surrounding molecular cloud. This material fuels the formation of stars and, eventually, planets.
“We are looking at the building blocks, not only of stars, but also potentially of planets,” co-investigator Guido De Marchi, a member of the European Space Agency’s faculty of space sciences, said in a statement. “And since the Small Magellanic Cloud has an environment similar to that of galaxies during cosmic noon, rocky planets may have formed earlier in the history of the Universe than we might have thought.”
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