Scientists have spotted new details on a distant planet, in a major breakthrough that could transform the search for alien life.
The research has allowed scientists to see the atmosphere on a planet outside our solar system in more detail than ever before. And a version of the new research could one day allow us to see life on other worlds, they say.
The new information was gathered using Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope. Since it was launched last year, scientists have hoped that the telescope could be used to study the details of other planet’s atmospheres, and give us a better understanding of their conditions.
Now researchers say they have gathered a whole new level of observational data about another planet, known as WASP-39b. They found entirely new information about its atmospheric chemistry, its clouds and data about its chemical composition that could tell us how the planet was formed.
Researchers say the findings are a “game changer”, and the beginning of techniques that could allow researchers to find life on other worlds.
They are reported in five new papers, published in Nature, which show the full power of the James Webb Space Telescope and are a hint to what it could show in the future.
Nasa’s JWST has already changed our understanding of the cosmos, with the release of stunning images that show galaxies and stars in more detail than ever before. But much more is still to be done with the telescope, and scientists have been using it to examine other objects from planets in our solar system to the most distant galaxies in the universe.
The new research was one of those projects, and allowed scientists to focus on the planet WASP-39b. That is thought to be akin to a fluffy version of our Saturn, which lies some 700 light-years from us.
Scientists have known about that planet for more than 10 years, and it is exciting in part because it is thought to have large amounts of water, carbon dioxide and other chemicals in its atmosphere, which could prove helpful in the search for alien life. But its atmosphere still remains largely unknown.
To better undertand it, scientists use JWST to watch the planet as it passed in front of its star four times in July 2022. As they do so, they can see the colours that are present in the atmosphere, and allow them to infer what might be present in it.
Tha tallowed scientists to build up a detailed picture of the planet and its atmosphere. That can be used not only to verify the detail that JWST can see, but also better understand the planet.
A previously mysterious element of the atmosphere is actually sulfur dioxide, the new study suggests, which represents the first time it has been found on another planet. And the ratios of various chemicals in the atmosphere allow us to understand how it might have been formed: the fact there is much more oxygen than carbon, for instance, suggests that the planet was born much further from its star than it lies now.
The study also indicates that the planet is covered in patches of clouds, in collections rather than as one big cover over the planet. Those clouds are not made of water like on Earth, but rather substances such as sulphides and silicates.
In the future, follow-up space telescopes that come after the JWST could find alien life in much the same way. Gathering information about the atmospheres of other worlds might one day allow us to infer that there are living organisms on a given planet.
As such, the new findings are also a test run of the kind of techniques we might use to eventually find aliens, as well as helping give information about other worlds in themselves.