James Webb Telescope finds atoms, molecules, active chemistry in planet outside solar system

The observatory has scored a molecular and chemical profile of the distant world’s skies.

The telescope’s array of highly sensitive instruments was trained on the atmosphere of WASP-39 b. (Photo: Nasa)

In Short

  • The observatory made a molecular and chemical profile
  • Hubble has previously isolated ingredients of this broiling planet’s atmosphere
  • The findings have been published in a series of five papers

By India Today Web Desk: The James Webb Telescope has delivered again. This time, the world's most powerful observatory has looked into the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet outside our solar system. Astronomers trained the lenses on WASP-39 b, a hot Saturn, and found a full menu of atoms, molecules, and even signs of active chemistry and clouds.

The observatory scored a molecular and chemical profile of the distant world’s skies after other observatories including Hubble and Spitzer, previously have revealed isolated ingredients of this broiling planet’s atmosphere. The data indicate how these clouds might look up close.


Astronomers believe that the clouds could appear broken up rather than a single, uniform blanket over the planet. The findings pave way for the observatory to be used probing the atmospheres of smaller, rocky planets like those in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

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“We observed the exoplanet with multiple instruments that, together, provide a broad swath of the infrared spectrum and a panoply of chemical fingerprints inaccessible until [this mission]. Data like these are a game changer,” Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California said.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world's premier space science observatory. (Photo: Nasa)

The findings have been published in a series of five papers, three of which are in press and two of which are under review. The telescope has for the first timefound sulfur dioxide (SO2) in another planet's atmosphere, which is a molecule produced from chemical reactions triggered by high-energy light from the planet’s parent star.

“This is the first time we see concrete evidence of photochemistry – chemical reactions initiated by energetic stellar light – on exoplanets. I see this as a really promising outlook for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres with [this mission],” Shang-Min Tsai, a researcher at the University of Oxford said.

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WASP-39 b is about as massive as Saturn but in an orbit tighter than Mercury, orbiting a star some 700 light-years away. The planet’s proximity to its host star – eight times closer than Mercury is to our Sun – also makes it a laboratory for studying the effects of radiation from host stars on exoplanets.

Other atmospheric constituents detected by the Webb telescope include sodium (Na), potassium (K), and water vapor (H2O), confirming previous space and ground-based telescope observations as well as finding additional fingerprints of water, at these longer wavelengths, that haven’t been seen before. The telescope also saw carbon dioxide (CO2) at a higher resolution along with carbon monoxide (CO).

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“We had predicted what [the telescope] would show us, but it was more precise, more diverse, and more beautiful than I actually believed it would be," Hannah Wakeford, an astrophysicist at the University of Bristol added. Astronomers maintained that WASP-39 b’s chemical inventory suggests a history of smashups and mergers of smaller bodies called planetesimals to create an eventual goliath of a planet.

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