Scientists announce the discovery of the first exoplanet using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The rocky world orbits a strange red dwarf star so tightly that it completes a complete revolution once every two Earth days.
Earth, while unique, is only one of tens of billions of planets thought to inhabit the Milky Way. Worlds outside our solar system, orbiting alien stars, are known as exoplanets.
With the help of the powerful telescopes of modern times, astronomers have been able to confirm the existence of more than 5,000 strange worlds, each with its own unique and sometimes shockingly bizarre characteristics.
Incredible James Webb Space Telescope pictures
Now, astronomers have made the first confirmed detection of a new exoplanet using James Webb spacecraft’s powerful golden eye.
The candidate world — known as LHS 475 b — was first identified by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS is designed to take a wide angle view of the universe in order to observe periodic minute dips in the light of distant stars that could indicate the presence of an exoplanet passing between the telescope and its guardian star.
One such blip was detected from a red dwarf star orbiting within the Milky Way galaxy 41 light-years from Earth in the constellation Octane. After the initial detection, JWST was tasked with observing the distant star on August 31 of last year.
Preliminary results from the main telescope confirmed the presence of a rocky exoplanet, 99% the diameter of Earth, in orbit around the red dwarf. The frequency of the dip in light from its parent star also revealed that LHS 475 b is traveling around its star in an incredibly narrow orbit – closer even than the path that the innermost planet of our solar system, Mercury, treads around our sun.
Its orbit is so close that the planet is able to complete a full circle of its relatively cool parent star once every two Earth days.
Despite the quality of the JWST data, the team isn’t yet sure whether the newly discovered world hosts an atmosphere. However, scientists have been able to rule out the presence of certain elements, including methane.
“The observatory’s data is fantastic,” explained astrophysicist Irene May of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. In a NASA statement. “The telescope is so sensitive that it can easily detect a range of particles, but we can’t yet come to any definitive conclusions about the planet’s atmosphere.”
The world could still host a pressurized atmosphere made 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 the fact that it orbits a star half the temperature of the sun.
By studying the distant worlds orbiting distant stars, astronomers can uncover the secrets of how the planets of our solar system formed and evolved, and those scattered throughout the universe. 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 could exist on a planet’s surface — that had the right ingredients for extraterrestrial life to evolve.
JWST’s ability to characterize exoplanet atmospheres and search for potential signs of life represents a powerful tool in humanity’s continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, ultimately shedding light on the question of whether humanity is alone in the universe.
“These first observational results from a rocky Earth-sized planet open up many future possibilities for studying the atmospheres of rocky planets with Webb,” said Mark Clampin, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Webb is bringing us closer and closer to a new understanding of Earth-like worlds beyond our solar system, and the mission is still in its infancy.”
Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and video game news for IGN. He has more than eight years of experience covering breaking developments in multiple scientific fields and there is absolutely no time to fool you. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer
Image credit: NASA
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