NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope detects carbon dioxide in distant world atmosphere for first time

A rendering of WASP-39 b, an exoplanet with an atmosphere full of carbon dioxide.NASA, ESA, CSA and J. Olmsted (STScI)

Astronomers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have definitively detected evidence of carbon dioxide on a world beyond our solar system.

The planet, called WASP-39 b, is a gas giant orbiting a sun-like star about 700 light-years away, where temperatures are a constant around 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, or 900 degrees Celsius. While the planet was first discovered in 2011, Webb’s sensitive infrared instruments allowed researchers to analyze it in detail, definitely detecting carbon dioxide there for the first time.

To better understand exoplanets or planets around other stars, researchers train their telescopes to measure the chemical composition of the exoplanet’s atmosphere. They do this by looking at how starlight is filtered by the atmosphere, which dips into very specific wavelengths that correspond to different molecules.

Using Webb’s NIRSpec instrument, astronomers looked at the gases and chemicals present in WASP-39 b’s atmosphere on July 10.

“As soon as the data appeared on my screen, the striking feature of carbon dioxide grabbed me,” Zafar Rustamkulov, a planetary scientist and member of the exoplanet transit team, said in a press release. “It was a special moment, crossing an important threshold in exoplanet science.”

The 'carbon dioxide signature' detected by the Webb Near Infrared Spectrograph as the world passed through its star.

The carbon dioxide was detected by the James Webb Space Telescope’s spectrograph as the world passed through its star.NASA, ESA, CSA and L. Hustak (STScI). Science: The JWST Transiting Exoplanet Community Early Release Science Team

“The detection of such a clear carbon dioxide signal in WASP-39 b bodes well for detecting atmospheres on smaller, Earth-sized planets,” Natalie Batalha, an astronomer who leads the exoplanet transit team, said in a press release.

While carbon dioxide is associated with life on Earth, astronomers typically look for the life-sustaining ingredients — liquid water, a constant source of energy, carbon and other elements — when hunting for life on distant worlds.

When NASA unveiled the first batch of Webb images on July 12, the agency included data showing the presence of water, along with evidence of clouds and haze, in the atmosphere of an exoplanet called WASP-96 b, which orbits a star that looks like a sun.

More discoveries are almost inevitable as Webb’s capabilities allow unprecedented views into the atmospheres of distant planets.

“With the James Webb Space Telescope, we can explore the chemical composition of the atmospheres of other worlds — and whether there are signs of it that we can only explain with life,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, professor of astronomy at Cornell University and director of The Institute Carl Sagan, previously told Insider.

“This is an amazing time in the exploration of the universe,” Kaltenegger said, adding: “Are we alone? This amazing space telescope is the first instrument to collect enough light to begin to explore this fundamental question.”

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