NASA’s James Webb Telescope (JWT) has made a spectacular breakthrough discovery after snapping images of a rocky planet with conditions that are fairly similar to Earth. The exoplanet (a planet outside our Solar System) has been given the name LHS 475 b and its 99 percent of Earth’s diameter. Scientists have been unable to determine whether it has an atmosphere but found that it lacks a thick methane-dominated atmosphere like Saturn’s moon Titan has.
While the planet has similar conditions to Earth, it is a few hundred degrees warmer and completes an orbit in two days.
Mark Clampin, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement: “These first observational results from an Earth-size, rocky planet open the door to many future possibilities for studying rocky planet atmospheres with Webb.
“Webb is bringing us closer and closer to a new understanding of Earth-like worlds outside our solar system, and the mission is only just getting started.”
The research team that discovered the planet was led by Kevin Stevenson and Jacob Lustig-Yaeger, both from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
Mr Lustig-Yaeger said: “There is no question that the planet is there. Webb’s pristine data validates it.”
The team decided to keep watch of the planet with the JWT after carefully assessing targets of interest from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which picked up signs that the planet might exist. The JWT’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) reportedly snapped an image of the planet with ease and with clarity despite making only
Mr Stevenson said: “The fact that it is also a small, rocky planet is impressive for the observatory”
And while it is possible that rocky world has no atmosphere, there are some atmospheric compositions that are yet to be ruled out. This includes a pure carbon dioxide atmosphere, for instance.
Mr Lustig-Yaeger said: “Counterintuitively, a 100 percent carbon dioxide atmosphere is so much more compact that it becomes very challenging to detect.”
The team will need to get even more precise measurements to tell whether there is a pure carbon dioxide atmosphere or no atmosphere whatsoever. The researchers are set to make some additional observations this summer to find out more.
And as the planet is just a few hundred degrees hotter than Earth, the researchers say it could end up looking more like Venus if they manage to detect clouds. This is because Venus, has a carbon dioxide atmosphere and is surrounded by thick clouds.
Mr Lustig-Yaeger added: “We’re at the forefront of studying small, rocky exoplanets.We have barely begun scratching the surface of what their atmospheres might be like.”
Other observations made by the JWT were shared at a meeting on Wednesday, including views of a dusty disk whirling around a red dwarf star that is close by for ths first time.
The disk around the star, dubbed AU Mic, is the left-over remnants of planet formation. When small, solid objects known as planetesimals (a planet in the process of getting made) smashed into each other, they left behind a large, dusty ring surrounding the star and formed a debris disk.
Lead study author Kellen Lawson, postdoctoral program fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said: “A debris disk is continuously replenished by collisions of planetesimals. By studying it, we get a unique window into the recent dynamical history of this system.”
The telescope was also able to take a look inside the NGC 346, a star-forming region that can be found in a neighboring dwarf galaxy known as the Small Magellanic Cloud.
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