James Webb Space Telescope Focuses On Exoplanet Atmosphere

James Webb Space Telescope Focuses On Exoplanet Atmosphere/

Astronomers will be hoping for cloudy skies when the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST or Webb) turns its attention to exoplanet atmospheres laden with vaporized rock and crystals such as corundum and perovskite, which form gems on Earth.

Hot Jupiters, which are gas giants orbiting very close to their stars, grow so hot that rocky elements, minerals, and metals can exist as vapor in their atmosphere, scorched by temperatures as high as 3,600 Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius).

“On Earth, many of these minerals are gems,” said Tiffany Kataria, an exoplanet scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement.“A geologist would study them as rocks on Earth, but they can form clouds on exoplanets. It was quite wild,” he added.

Such minerals have been detected in the atmospheres of exoplanets before. In 2017 astronomers using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the European Southern Observatory in Chile detected a titanium oxide signature in the atmosphere of Hot Jupiters called WASP-19b. Three years later, VLT observed iron vapor on the daytime side of hot Jupiter WASP-76b.

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James Webb Space Telescope

Many hot Jupiters are hot tidally locked, meaning that they always show the same face to their star, which causes their days to be very hot. In the case of WASP-76b, daytime temperatures hit 4,000 degrees F (2,200 degrees C). The night side of the planet is ‘only’ 2,700 degrees F (1,500 degrees C), but that’s cold enough for iron to condense and precipitate as molten metal rain.

Previously, these elements and minerals have been detected as a diffuse presence in exoplanetary atmospheres. Now, JWST’s high-resolution vision will be able to directly distinguish these minerals as clouds, spectroscopically measuring their composition.
“Clouds tell us a lot about the chemistry in the atmosphere,” says Kataria.
“This then becomes a question of how clouds form, and the formation and evolution of the system as a whole,” he added.

For example, in WASP-19b titanium oxide absorbs heat, causing a temperature reversal in which the planet’s upper atmosphere is hotter than the lower atmosphere, where the reverse is usually expected.


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JWST has been observing alien atmospheres, detecting water clouds in the atmosphere of exoplanet WASP-96b, where scientists previously thought there were no clouds at all. During its first year of observation, JWST also investigated many other exoplanetary atmospheres.

Kataria has been involved in a number of projects, including collaborating with MIT’s Thomas Mikal-Evans to use JWST’s Near Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec) to characterize the atmosphere of ultra-hot Jupiter WASP-121b, which is 850 light-years away. from Earth and was the first exoplanet found to have an aqueous stratosphere.

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