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The James Webb Space Telescope could add another cosmic achievement to its list: the space observatory was used to confirm the existence of an exoplanet for the first time.
The celestial body is known as LHS 475 b and is located outside our solar system, and is roughly the same size as Earth. The rocky world is 41 light-years away in the constellation Octane.
Previous data collected by NASA via the Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, indicated that the planet might exist.
A team of researchers led by staff Astronomer Kevin Stephenson and postdoctoral fellow Jacob Lustig-Yeger at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, observed the target using Webb. They watched dips in starlight as the planet passed in front of its host star, called transits, and watched two transits occur.
“There is no doubt that the planet exists. Webb’s original data validates it,” said Lustig-Yaeger. in the current situation.
The discovery of the planet was announced Wednesday at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.
“The fact that it’s a small, rocky planet is impressive for the observatory,” Stephenson said.
Webb is the only telescope with the ability to describe the atmospheres of Earth-sized exoplanets. The research team used Webb to analyze the planet across multiple wavelengths of light to see if it has an atmosphere. For now, the team couldn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but the telescope’s sensitivity picked up a handful of molecules that were present.
“There are some terrestrial atmospheres that we can rule out,” said Lustig-Yaeger. “It could not have a dense, methane-dominated atmosphere, similar to that of Saturn’s moon Titan.”
Astronomers will have another opportunity to observe the planet again during the summer and conduct a follow-up analysis of the possible presence of its atmosphere.
Webb’s discoveries also revealed that the planet is a few hundred degrees warmer than our own. If researchers detect any clouds on LHS 475 b, they may turn out to be similar to Venus – which is Earth’s hottest twin with a carbon dioxide atmosphere.
“We are at the forefront of studying small, rocky exoplanets,” said Lustig-Yaeger. “We’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of what the atmosphere might be like.”
The planet completes one orbit around its red dwarf star every two Earth days. Given that the star is less than half the temperature of our sun, it is possible for the planet to maintain an atmosphere despite its proximity to the star.
The researchers believe their discovery will be the first of many in Webb’s future.
“These first observational results from a rocky Earth-sized planet open the door to many future possibilities for studying the atmospheres of rocky planets with Webb,” Mark Clampin, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement. “Webb is bringing us closer and closer to a new understanding of Earth-like worlds outside the solar system, and the mission is still in its infancy.”
More Webb’s observations were shared at the meeting on Wednesday, including never-before-seen views of a dusty disk orbiting a nearby red dwarf star.
The telescope’s images mark the first time such a disk has been captured in infrared wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye.
The dust-filled disk around the star, called AU Mic, represents the remnants of planet formation. When small solid objects called planetesimals — a planet in the process of formation — collided with each other, they left behind a large dusty ring around the star and formed a disk of debris.
“The debris disk is constantly being regenerated by collisions of young planets. By studying them, we gain a unique window into the recent dynamical history of this system,” said lead study author Glenn Lawson, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and a member of the research team that studied AU Mic. .
Webb’s capabilities allowed astronomers to see the region close to the star. Their observations and data could provide insights that help in the search for giant planets that form broad orbits in planetary systems, unlike Jupiter and Saturn in our solar system.
AU Mic is located 32 light-years away in the constellation Microscopium. The star is about 23 million years old, so the formation of planets around the star has already stopped — because that process normally takes less than 10 million years, according to the researchers. Other telescopes have spotted two planets orbiting the star.
said study co-author Josh Schleider, principal investigator for the Observation 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 nearby dwarf galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud.
About $2 billion To 3 billion years after the Big Bang that created the universe, galaxies filled with fireworks to form stars. This peak of star formation is called the “cosmic noon.”
“A noonday cosmic galaxy will not have one NGC 346, as it does in the Small Magellanic Cloud; it will have thousands,” said Margaret Mixner, an astronomer at the Universities Space Research Association and principal investigator on the research team. in the current situation.
“Even if NGC 346 is now the only massive star-forming cluster in its galaxy, it provides us with a great opportunity to explore the conditions that existed at cosmic noon.”
Observing how stars form in this galaxy allows astronomers to compare the formation of stars in our Milky Way galaxy.
In Webb’s new image, forming stars can be seen pulling ribbon-like gas and dust from a surrounding molecular cloud. This material fuels the formation of stars, and eventually planets.
“We’re seeing the building blocks, not only of stars, but also potential planets,” co-investigator Guido De Marchi, a faculty member in space sciences at the European Space Agency, said in a statement. “Since the Small Magellanic Cloud has an environment similar to that of galaxies during the cosmic noon period, it is possible that rocky planets formed much earlier in the history of the universe than we thought.”
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