OOn Tuesday, a team of NASA astronomers unveiled the first much-anticipated images taken by the groundbreaking James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
From a full infrared image of the distant Universe to a blinding image of the Carina Nebula, the world has not been disappointed. Along with the stunning images, the Earthlings got a little glimpse of the kind of science JWST will be conducting in the search for habitable exoplanets in the Universe. In fact, astronomers have revealed the most detailed measurements yet of the atmosphere of an exoplanet outside our solar system – and it appears that there is evidence of water, haze and clouds in the planet’s atmosphere that were not previously known.
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The observed exoplanet in question is named WASP-96b and is one of more than 5,000 planets confirmed to exist in the Milky Way outside of our own solar system. The cataloging and discovery of exoplanets, i.e. planets in other solar systems, is an impressive human achievement: Because they are so much smaller than stars and therefore so much fainter, they are much harder to see. In fact, the first exoplanet wasn’t discovered until 1992 – meaning that any previously produced science fiction in which researchers visited other planets was based on speculation.
Located almost 1,150 light-years away in the constellation of the Phoenix, exoplanet WASP-96b was first discovered by scientists in 2014. It is quite an unusual exoplanet as there is no comparable planet in Earth’s solar system. For example, WASP-96b orbits its own star every 3.4 days, meaning temperatures will hover around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. (For comparison, Mercury, the planet closest to our sun, orbits it once every 88 days. Also, there are no gas giants close to the sun in our solar system.)
A gas planet less than half the size of Jupiter (but 1.2 times the diameter of Jupiter), NASA describes WASP-96 b as “much puffier” than any planet orbiting our sun.
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Extraordinarily, after just 6.4 hours of observation, JWST took incredibly precise measurements of the exoplanet, showing a clear signature of water and evidence of haze and clouds. Previous studies of WASP-96b failed to detect such signatures.
The measurements, which are the most detailed of their kind, were made by JWST’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), which measured the exoplanet’s light as it passed its star. The light curve showed a change in brightness and individual wavelengths of infrared light between 0.6 and 2.8 microns.
The measurements also revealed a hidden if somewhat familiar atmosphere, one with a “distinct signature of water, evidence of haze, and evidence of clouds that were presumed non-existent based on previous observations.”
“From our vantage point, this one passes in front of its star every three and a half days, allowing a small portion of the star’s light through its atmosphere and revealing its composition,” says Avi Loeb, former chair of Harvard University’s astronomy department, told Salon per E -Mail. “Such measurements help us to better understand how gas giants formed in the solar system.”
The measurements confirmed some of what scientists already knew: the size, orbit, and very existence of WASP-96b. But as noted, it also revealed a hidden if somewhat familiar atmosphere, one with a “distinct signature of water, signs of haze, and evidence of clouds that were presumed non-existent based on previous observations,” like that NASA explained.
So does this mean that life could exist on this exoplanet? After all, water is considered a key signature for life beyond Earth.
“Such planets are not thought to host life because they do not have a thin atmosphere on a rocky surface like Earth does,” Loeb explained. “The combination of liquid water and a solid surface are considered key ingredients in the recipe for ‘life as we know it’.”
However, the measurements give the world a preview of how accurately and quickly JWST could be able to fulfill its mission to map the atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanets. As previously reported, JWST could even be able to observe the industrial pollution also in the atmosphere of an alien planet – and reveal intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations that are extinct or still exist.
NASA said the next step for JWST is “to measure the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, constrain the abundance of various elements such as carbon and oxygen, and estimate the temperature of the atmosphere with depth.”
“You can then use this information to make inferences about the overall makeup of the planet, how, when and where it formed,” NASA said.