James Webb Telescope just detected carbon dioxide on an exoplanet

“As soon as the data appeared on my screen, the whopping carbon dioxide feature grabbed me,” Zafar Rustamkulov, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and member of the JWST Transiting Exoplanet Community Early Release Science team, which undertook this investigation, said in the press release. β€œIt was a special moment, crossing an important threshold in exoplanet sciences.”

It’s a key moment for the James Webb Space Telescope. Launched on December 25, 2021, the telescope has a giant 21-foot (6.5-meter) gold-coated mirror that’s used to peer further into space with higher detail than ever before. Last month, the telescope stunned the world when NASA released its first images.

The NIRSpec, which captured the latest carbon dioxide readings, works through filtered starlight, which is based on the concept that different gases absorb various combinations of colors. The brightness differences in these can be analyzed by researchers when cross-referenced with a spectrum of wavelengths. In this way, the composition of an atmosphere can be determined.

Why WASP-39 b? The planet, first discovered back in 2011, is classed as a “transiting” one. In other words, it has an orbit that can be seen edge-on as opposed to from above, observations of starlight are particularly more convenient for researchers. Additionally, WASP-39 b tends to undergo frequent transits and with its inflated atmosphere makes quite the smooth target for transmission spectroscopy.

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