Scientists Say Webb Telescope’s New Exoplanet Data is ‘a Game Changer’

"The powerful Webb telescope doesn't need to take pretty pictures to revolutionize our grasp of the cosmos," notes Mashable. It's "a game changer," says one of the researchers. They're part of what the Webb telescope's web site calls "an international team numbering in the hundreds" that "independently analysed data from four of the Webb telescope's finely calibrated instrument modes." And their ground-breaking first results? The James Webb Space Telescope "just scored another first: a molecular and chemical portrait of a distant world's skies." The European Space Agency's page for the telescope explains why revealing a "broad swath of the infrared spectrum and a panoply of chemical fingerprints" is so groundbreaking: While Webb and other space telescopes, including the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, have previously revealed isolated ingredients of this heated planet's atmosphere, the new readings provide a full menu of atoms, molecules, and even signs of active chemistry and clouds.... The telescope's array of highly sensitive instruments was trained on the atmosphere of WASP-39 b, a "hot Saturn" (a planet about as massive as Saturn but in an orbit tighter than Mercury) orbiting a star some 700 light-years away.... Webb's exquisitely sensitive instruments have provided a profile of WASP-39 b's atmospheric constituents and identified a plethora of contents, including water, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, sodium and potassium. Earlier Mashable explained that the researchers "wait for planets to travel in front of their bright stars. This starlight passes through the exoplanet's atmosphere, then through space, and ultimately into instruments called spectrographs aboard Webb... essentially hi-tech prisms, which separate the light into a rainbow of colors. Here's the big trick: Certain molecules, like water, in the atmosphere absorb specific types, or colors, of light." From the Webb Telescope's site: The findings bode well for the capability of Webb's instruments to conduct the broad range of investigations of exoplanets — planets around other stars — hoped for by the science community. That includes probing the atmospheres of smaller, rocky planets like those in the TRAPPIST-1 system.... Among the unprecedented revelations is the first detection in an exoplanet atmosphere of sulphur dioxide, a molecule produced from chemical reactions triggered by high-energy light from the planet's parent star.... "This is the first time we have seen concrete evidence of photochemistry — chemical reactions initiated by energetic stellar light — on exoplanets," said Shang-Min Tsai, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and lead author of the paper explaining the origin of sulphur dioxide in WASP-39 b's atmosphere. "I see this as a really promising outlook for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres...." This led to another first: scientists applying computer models of photochemistry to data that require such physics to be fully explained. The resulting improvements in modelling will help build the technological know-how needed to interpret potential signs of habitability in the future.... The planet's proximity to its host star — eight times closer than Mercury is to our Sun — also makes it a laboratory for studying the effects of radiation from host stars on exoplanets. Better knowledge of the star-planet connection should bring a deeper understanding of how these processes affect the diversity of planets observed in the galaxy. Other atmospheric constituents detected by the Webb telescope include sodium (Na), potassium (K), and water vapour (H2O), confirming previous space- and ground-based telescope observations as well as finding additional fingerprints of water, at these longer wavelengths, that haven't been seen before. Webb also saw carbon dioxide (CO2) at higher resolution, providing twice as much data as reported from its previous observations.... By precisely revealing the details of an exoplanet atmosphere, the Webb telescope's instruments performed well beyond scientists' expectations — and promise a new phase of exploration of the broad variety of exoplanets in the galaxy. "We are going to be able to see the big picture of exoplanet atmospheres," said Laura Flagg, a researcher at Cornell University and a member of the international team. "It is incredibly exciting to know that everything is going to be rewritten. That is one of the best parts of being a scientist." Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency.

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