James Webb telescope may have found a rocky exoplanet with an atmosphere

The search for an Earth-like planet with a protective atmosphere has so far eluded scientists, but a new detection by the James Webb Space Telescope could be the first.

Astronomers are taking a closer look at GJ 486b(opens in a new tab), relatively close to our solar system at only 26 light years away in the constellation Virgo. Discovered two years ago, it is a rocky exoplanet(opens in a new tab) about 30 percent larger than Earth, orbiting a red dwarf star(opens in a new tab) every 1.5 days.

Despite being so close to its host star and having a scorching temperature of about 800 degrees Fahrenheit, the planet shows signs of water vapor, a clue that the alien world may have an atmosphere surrounding the planet.

“Water vapor in an atmosphere on a hot rocky planet would represent a major advance for exoplanet science,” said Kevin Stevenson, principal investigator of the study at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, in a communicated(opens in a new tab). “But we have to be careful and make sure the star is not to blame.”


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Why do we need an environment?

NASA has called the Earth’s atmosphere its “security blanket.”(opens in a new tab):” Without it, the kind of life that flourishes on the planet would not exist. This cocoon traps oxygen in the air and filters out the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation, keeping our world warm and habitable. It also creates pressure that allows liquid water to exist on Earth’s surface.

Water vapor has been discovered in gaseous exoplanets(opens in a new tab) before, but never for a rocky or terrestrial Earth-like planet, Mars, Mercury, and Venus.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, another possible explanation for the vapor detected by Webb is that the water comes from the outer layer of the nearby red dwarf star, cooler than the sun, not the planet. Scientists will need more observations to determine whether the exoplanet actually has an atmosphere and how much water is present.

Scientists studying an exoplanet

Webb researchers found hints of water vapor in their analysis of a rocky exoplanet.
Credits: NASA / ESA / CSA / Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

Even the sun sometimes has water vapor in sunspots because these areas are much cooler compared to the surrounding surface of the star. Since the newly discovered exoplanet’s star is much cooler than the sun, the Webb researchers say it’s even more plausible that water vapor is concentrated in its starspots. That means no one yet knows whether the star is mimicking the signal they would see from a planet’s atmosphere.

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“Water vapor in an atmosphere on a hot rocky planet would represent a major breakthrough for exoplanet science.”

Webb’s new research will be published (opens in a new tab)in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star

GJ 486b is a rocky exoplanet 30 percent larger than Earth, orbiting a red dwarf star every 1.5 days.
Credits: NASA / ESA / G. Bacon (STScI)

How does Webb study exoplanets?

Webb, a collaboration of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, is the most powerful infrared telescope in space. Astronomers say its scientific capabilities are ushering in a golden age in our understanding of the universe. One of its key missions is to look at the atmospheres of other worlds. Discoveries of water and methane, for example, important ingredients for life as we know it, could be signs of potential habitability or biological activity.

The Webb researchers used a technique called transmission spectroscopy(opens in a new tab) to study the exoplanet. When these worlds cross in front of their host star, starlight filters through their atmospheres. Molecules in the atmosphere absorb certain wavelengths of light, or colors, so by breaking starlight into its basic parts, a rainbow, astronomers can detect which segments of light are missing to discern the molecular composition of an atmosphere.

After observing two instances of the planet crossing in front of its star, the researchers used three different methods to analyze the data. All were consistent in showing a strong likelihood of a water vapor signal, according to a publication(opens in a new tab) by the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the instrument.

“We didn’t see evidence of the planet crossing any stellar spots during the transits. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t spots elsewhere on the star,” said co-author Ryan MacDonald of the University of Michigan in Ann. Arbor, in a statement(opens in a new tab). “And that’s exactly the physical scenario that would imprint this water signal in the data and it could look like a planetary atmosphere.”

If you’re thinking this means Earthlings have found a Plan B planet, don’t get too excited: Scientists say GJ 486b appears to be too close to its star to be habitable. But if it does have an atmosphere, they hope to know whether such a rocky planet could maintain its protective cocoon even as its very nearby star blasts it away with heat and solar radiation.

How could such a planet replenish its atmosphere?

One theory suggests that volcanoes draw steam from deep within the planet.

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Ikaroa is excited to share the news about the potential discovery of a rocky exoplanet that may boast its first known atmosphere. Scientists have recently reported that James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will be launched shortly, has given indications of the possible discovery of a rocky exoplanet circling a star located 310 light-years away from the Earth.

The atmospheric signature of the planet was detected when the JWST observed a planet called Gliese 486 b. This Super-Earth is about twenty-seven times more massive than the Earth but is still considered rocky. The JWST had used its powerful infrared vision to detect the exoplanet.

This is a landmark discovery since it is the first of its kind involving rocky exoplanets. The likely existence of an atmosphere around the rocky exoplanet being aroundso far away is quite surprising. Scientists are excited to find out more about this planet and its atmosphere by further observation with JWST.

It is discoveries such as these that have made Ikaroa, a full stack tech company, quite enthusiastic about its products and services in space exploration and observation. We are committed to helping humanity unlock the mysteries of our universe by connecting astronomers to space-based observation data with the help of our cloud-based platform.

We look forward to witnessing more remarkable results such as this one, with the advent of the James Webb Space Telescope and other great technological advancements.


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