James Webb Telescope Studied Weather On A Planet 280 Light Years Away, Giving Hope For Finding Extraterrestrial Life

8th May 2024
James Webb Telescope Studied Weather On A Planet 280 Light Years Away, Giving Hope For Finding Extraterrestrial Life

Recently, scientists have created a weather map of the planet WASP-43b, situated 280 light years from Earth, using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). While this planet is a hot gas giant unsuitable for known life forms, this groundbreaking discovery fuels optimism that more detailed research may identify signs of extraterrestrial life in the atmospheres of potentially habitable exoplanets.

James Webb’s Special Instruments To Create A Weather Map

The study was published in the journal Nature Astronomy. Previous observations conducted by older space telescopes had already suggested the existence of an atmosphere surrounding WASP-43b. However, the JWST instruments are the first to measure the planet’s atmospheric conditions directly.

“With Hubble, we could clearly see that there is water vapour on the dayside. Both Hubble and Spitzer [Spitzer Space Telescope] suggested there might be clouds on the night side. But we needed more precise measurements from Webb to really begin mapping the temperature, cloud cover, winds, and more detailed atmospheric composition all the way around the planet,” explained Taylor Bell, a researcher from the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute and lead author of a study.

Methods Of Creating A Weather Map

For their research, the scientists utilized a technique called phase curve spectroscopy to detect small changes in the temperature of the star-planet system. James Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) remained focused on WASP-43b for more than 24 hours, collecting the planet’s temperature readings every 10 seconds. This allowed the scientists to make conclusions about the atmospheric conditions. 

Brightness of the planet
This phase curve, captured by the MIRI low-resolution spectrometer on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, shows the change in brightness of the WASP-43 system over time as the planet orbits its star. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ralf Crawford (STScI)

“By observing over an entire orbit, we were able to calculate the temperature of different sides of the planet as they rotate into view. From that, we could construct a rough map of temperature across the planet,” said Bell.

Conclusions About WASP-43b’s Weather

The measurements indicated that the sunny side of the planet, which always faces its star due to tidal locking, had an average temperature of nearly 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit (1,250 degrees Celsius). This is hot enough to melt iron. On the other hand, the “night” side, which constantly faces away from the star, was cooler at around 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit (600 degrees Celsius).

Temperature of the visible side of the planet
This set of maps shows the temperature of the visible side of the hot gas-giant exoplanet WASP-43 b, as it orbits its star. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ralf Crawford (STScI)

Additionally, using computer simulations similar to those used to predict Earth’s weather, researchers found that the night side likely has thick clouds high in the atmosphere. These clouds trap some of the heat and make the night appear cooler and darker than it would be without clouds.

A Hope To Find Extraterrestrial Life With JWSP

While WASP-43b planet isn’t a top choice for studying alien life, researchers believe that analyzing its atmosphere from a distance of over 280 light-years offers hope for finding signs of life on smaller, rocky exoplanets resembling Earth, especially those in their star’s habitable zone.

Creating a weather map of WASP-43b also demonstrates James Webb’s advanced capabilities in exploring exoplanets and detecting temperature changes over large distances.

“The fact that we can map temperature in this way is a real testament to Webb’s sensitivity and stability,” summarized Michael Roman, a co-author from the University of Leicester in the U.K.

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