Scientists have announced the discovery of the very first exoplanet found with the help of NASA James Webb Space Telescope. The rocky world orbits an alien red dwarf star so tightly that it completes a complete revolution every other Earth day.
Earth, unique as it is, is just one of the tens of billions of planets believed to populate the Milky Way galaxy. The worlds that exist outside our solar system, orbiting alien stars, are known as exoplanets.
With the help of powerful modern telescopes, astronomers have been able to confirm that there are over 5,000 alien worldseach of which has its own unique and sometimes shockingly alien characteristics.
Incredible James Webb Space Telescope images
Now astronomers have made the first confirmed discovery of a new exoplanet using JWST’s sharp golden eye.
The candidate world – known as LHS 475 b – was first identified by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS was designed to take in a wide-angle view of the cosmos to watch for small, periodic dips in the light of distant stars that might indicate the presence of an orbiting exoplanet passing between the telescope and its star guardian.
One such light signature was discovered from a red dwarf star orbiting the Milky Way 41 light years from Earth in the constellation Octanes. After the initial discovery, JWST was tasked with observing the distant star on August 31 last year.
The first results from the flagship telescope confirmed the presence of a rocky exoplanet with a diameter 99% that of Earth, orbiting the red dwarf. The frequency of dips from the parent star also revealed that LHS 475 b travels around its star in an incredibly tight orbit – closer even to the path trodden by our solar system’s innermost planet, Mercury. our sun.
Its orbit is so close that the planet can complete a complete circuit of its relatively cool parent star once every two Earth days.
Despite the quality of the JWST data, the team is not yet sure whether the newfound world hosts an atmosphere or not. However, the researchers have been able to rule out the presence of certain elements, including methane.
“The observatory’s data is beautiful,” explained astrophysicist Erin May, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in a statement from NASA. “The telescope is so sensitive that it can easily detect a range of molecules, but we cannot yet draw any definitive conclusions about the planet’s atmosphere.”
It is still possible that the world hosts a compact atmosphere composed entirely of carbon dioxide. Such an atmosphere would be difficult to detect, but the resulting greenhouse effect would help explain why the planet is hundreds of degrees hotter than Earth despite orbiting a star half the temperature of the Sun.
By studying the orbits of distant worlds around distant stars, astronomers can uncover the secrets of how the planets in our solar system, and those scattered throughout the cosmos, came to form and evolve. However, the holy grail of exoplanet exploration would be the discovery of a world orbiting in a star’s habitable zone—the region where liquid water can exist on a planet’s surface—that has the right ingredients for the development of extraterrestrial life.
JWST’s ability to characterize exoplanet atmospheres and search for potential signs of life represents a powerful tool in humanity’s ongoing mission to explore alien new worlds and ultimately shed light on the question if humanity is alone in the universe.
“These first observational results of a rocky Earth-sized planet open the door to many future opportunities for studying rocky planet atmospheres with Webb,” said Mark Clampin, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The Web is bringing us closer and closer to a new understanding of Earth-like worlds outside our solar system, and the mission has only just begun.”
Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and video game news for IGN. He has over eight years of experience in covering groundbreaking developments in several scientific fields and absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer
Image credit: NASA
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