NASA’s Webb Maps Weather on Planet 280 Light-Years Away

NASA’s Webb Maps Weather on Planet 280 Light-Years Away
14 de may. de 2024 · 3m 52s

An international team of researchers has successfully used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to map the weather on the hot gas-giant exoplanet WASP-43 b. Precise brightness measurements over a broad...

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An international team of researchers has successfully used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to map the weather on the hot gas-giant exoplanet WASP-43 b.
Precise brightness measurements over a broad spectrum of mid-infrared light, combined with 3D climate models and previous observations from other telescopes, suggest the presence of thick, high clouds covering the nightside, clear skies on the dayside, and equatorial winds upwards of 5,000 miles per hour mixing atmospheric gases around the planet.
The investigation is just the latest demonstration of the exoplanet science now possible with Webb’s extraordinary ability to measure temperature variations and detect atmospheric gases trillions of miles away.
WASP-43 b is a “hot Jupiter” type of exoplanet: similar in size to Jupiter, made primarily of hydrogen and helium, and much hotter than any of the giant planets in our own solar system. Although its star is smaller and cooler than the Sun, WASP-43 b orbits at a distance of just 1.3 million miles – less than 1/25th the distance between Mercury and the Sun.
With such a tight orbit, the planet is tidally locked, with one side continuously illuminated and the other in permanent darkness. Although the nightside never receives any direct radiation from the star, strong eastward winds transport heat around from the dayside.
Since its discovery in 2011, WASP-43 b has been observed with numerous telescopes, including NASA’s Hubble and now-retired Spitzer space telescopes.
“With Hubble, we could clearly see that there is water vapor on the dayside. Both Hubble and Spitzer suggested there might be clouds on the nightside,” explained Taylor Bell, researcher from the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute and lead author of a study published today in Nature Astronomy. “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.”
Although WASP-43 b is too small, dim, and close to its star for a telescope to see directly, its short orbital period of just 19.5 hours makes it ideal for phase curve spectroscopy, a technique that involves measuring tiny changes in brightness of the star-planet system as the planet orbits the star.
Since the amount of mid-infrared light given off by an object depends largely on how hot it is, the brightness data captured by Webb can then be used to calculate the planet’s temperature.
The broad spectrum of mid-infrared light captured by Webb also made it possible to measure the amount of water vapor (H2O) and methane (CH4) around the planet. “Webb has given us an opportunity to figure out exactly which molecules we’re seeing and put some limits on the abundances,” said Joanna Barstow, a co-author from the Open University in the U.K.
The spectra show clear signs of water vapor on the nightside as well as the dayside of the planet, providing additional information about how thick the clouds are and how high they extend in the atmosphere.  
Surprisingly, the data also shows a distinct lack of methane anywhere in the atmosphere. Although the dayside is too hot for methane to exist (most of the carbon should be in the form of carbon monoxide), methane should be stable and detectable on the cooler nightside.
“The fact that we don't see methane tells us that WASP-43b must have wind speeds reaching something like 5,000 miles per hour,” explained Barstow. “If winds move gas around from the dayside to the nightside and back again fast enough, there isn’t enough time for the expected chemical reactions to produce detectable amounts of methane on the nightside.”
The team thinks that because of this wind-driven mixing, the atmospheric chemistry is the same all the way around the planet, which wasn’t apparent from past work with Hubble and Spitzer.
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