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Webb Telescope Discovers Swirling Clouds on Distant Exoplanet

  • Craig Miller
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  • March 31, 2023
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  • 3 minute read
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Webb Telescope Discovers Swirling Clouds on Distant Exoplanet
Key Takeaways
  • Webb Telescope reveals swirling silicate clouds in the atmosphere of distant exoplanet VHS 1256b.
  • Researchers detected water, methane, carbon monoxide, and evidence of carbon dioxide on VHS 1256b.
  • The exoplanet has a 22-hour day and orbits two stars at a distance four times greater than that between Pluto and the Sun.
  • VHS 1256b is the most variable planetary-mass object known to date, with its atmosphere constantly rising, mixing, and moving.
  • The James Webb Space Telescope is an international collaboration, equipped with cutting-edge instruments to provide unprecedented insights into the cosmos.

 

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has unveiled fascinating insights into the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet, VHS 1256b.

The telescope’s observations revealed silicate clouds with a smoke-like consistency in the planet’s upper atmosphere and more silty clouds deeper within.

The exoplanet’s atmosphere is constantly rising, mixing, and moving, with temperatures reaching up to 1,500°F (830°C).

A Unique Exoplanetary System

VHS 1256b is located approximately 40 light-years away and has an unusual orbit, circling two stars at a distance four times greater than that between Pluto and the Sun.

This configuration results in a year on VHS 1256b being equivalent to 10,000 Earth years.

The exoplanet’s 22-hour day and its considerable distance from its host stars make it an excellent target for the Webb Space Telescope.

Unprecedented Observations

Using Webb’s Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), researchers have detected water, methane, and carbon monoxide on VHS 1256b, as well as evidence of carbon dioxide.

This marks the largest number of molecules ever identified simultaneously on a planet outside our solar system.

These high-resolution infrared data are pushing the limits of existing models, according to Polychronis Patapis, an astronomer at ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

With only a few hours of observations, the James Webb Space Telescope has demonstrated its immense potential for further discoveries in the years to come.

 

The Dynamic Atmosphere of VHS 1256b

The planet’s low gravity and young age—only 150 million years since formation—allow the silicate clouds to appear and remain higher in its atmosphere, making them detectable by Webb.

The turbulence in the atmosphere is due to the constant churning of these silicate clouds, as hotter material rises and colder material descends.

The resulting changes in brightness make VHS 1256b the most variable planetary-mass object known to date.

Future Investigations and Evolution

Researchers are only beginning to understand the complex data obtained from Webb’s observations, with more detailed modeling efforts expected to follow.

As VHS 1256b continues to age, it will cool off, and the heavy cloud cover in its skies may dissipate, leading to a transition from a cloudy atmosphere to a clearer one.

This groundbreaking discovery is part of the telescope’s Early Release Science program, which aims to advance the astronomical community’s ability to characterize planets and the disks where they form.

With only a few hours of observations, the James Webb Space Telescope has demonstrated its immense potential for further discoveries in the years to come.

About the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the world’s most advanced space science observatory, designed to solve mysteries within our solar system, explore distant exoplanets, and delve into the origins and structures of our universe.

As a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the JWST is equipped with a much larger mirror and cutting-edge instruments, enabling it to observe in infrared wavelengths and provide unparalleled insights into the cosmos.

International Collaboration

The JWST is an international collaboration led by NASA, with partners including the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

The project has brought together the expertise of various institutions and researchers worldwide, showcasing the importance of global cooperation in advancing space science and exploration.

Key Instruments

The telescope’s primary instruments include the Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), and the Fine Guidance Sensor/Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS).

These instruments work together to provide high-resolution imagery and spectroscopy, allowing scientists to study celestial objects in unprecedented detail.

Craig Miller

Craig Miller

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