A breakthrough in science. The Webb Telescope has captured a planet outside the Solar System for the first time
As the Science Alert server explains, according to a scientific team led by Brittany Miles from the University of California, Santa Cruz, this is the first time that sand clouds have been discovered on a planetary body outside the Solar System.
According to astronomers, the latest results from the Webb telescope may not only help us better understand these “failed stars,” as brown dwarfs are sometimes called, but also provide a harbinger of what the Webb telescope can do in the future.
The James Webb Telescope recently acquired its first image of an exoplanet, i.e. planets outside our Solar System. However, observing a brown dwarf is the next step in exploring the distant universe.
Brown dwarfs are what form when a small star does not accumulate enough mass to start hydrogen fusion in its core. At about 13 times the mass of the planet Jupiter however, brown dwarfs can fuse deuterium or heavy hydrogen.
The fusion pressure and temperature of deuterium is lower than that of hydrogen, which means that brown dwarfs are kind of like light stars. And importantly, unlike exoplanets, they can thus emit their own heat and light, albeit much fainter than real stars. Our current technology can detect this light directly, especially in infrared wavelengths, which the James Webb telescope specializes in.
Brown dwarf emits radio and infrared radiation, sometimes also visible light of a very long wavelength, i.e. red light. The name brown dwarf was introduced by the American astronomer Jill Tarter to distinguish these substellar objects from red dwarfs, which are real, albeit low-mass stars. It is estimated that there may be as many as 100 billion brown dwarfs in the Milky Way.
The latest observations are specifically of a brown dwarf about 72 light-years away called VHS 1256-1257 b, which was first described in 2015. Its mass is approximately 19 times that of Jupiter. The body is relatively young, with a reddish atmosphere.
Scientists therefore tried to determine the composition of its atmosphere with the help of the infrared spectrum. The method is based on the fact that different elements absorb and re-emit light at different wavelengths. That way, scientists can look at the spectrum to see fainter and brighter features and determine the elements that cause them.
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As a result, the team led by Miles found that the composition of the dwarf’s atmosphere is similar to that of other brown dwarfs studied at infrared wavelengths. But now scientists could observe everything much more clearly than ever before. “Water, methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sodium, and potassium were observed in several parts of the Webb spectrum based on comparisons from template brown dwarf spectra and atmospheric models,” the researchers listed in their paper.
Clouds full of minerals
Most clearly in the atmosphere, scientists recognized carbon monoxide. In addition, they also detected a thick layer of clouds full of silicate particles with a submicron grain size. “These are probably minerals like forsterite, enstatite, or quartz,” Miles elaborated.
Until recently, it was a mystery to scientists how rock grains could get so high into the atmosphere. However, at higher temperatures, rocks can evaporate, cool and condense into clouds, much like water. And recent research based on archival data from the retired Spitzer Space Telescope mission has suggested that the conditions required for high-altitude sand clouds can occur within a certain temperature and chemical range.
Therefore, silicate clouds should theoretically be visible on warmer worlds, such as brown dwarfs and some high-temperature planets outside the Solar System.
And this has now been confirmed thanks to the most advanced technology of the Webb telescope. The latest observations suggest that young brown dwarfs may indeed be surrounded by uneven clouds of rocks high in the atmosphere, which affect the brightness intensity of these cosmic bodies.
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The new finding provides astronomers with an entirely new tool for future observations of brown dwarfs. “These initial results are groundbreaking and can be used for a number of other nearby brown dwarfs that we will observe in the coming years,” say the excited scientists.
“This observatory will pioneer and advance our understanding of the physics of the atmospheres of planetary bodies, brown dwarfs and exoplanets in the coming years,” the scientific team explained.
This is not the only recent Webb telescope discovery of this kind. In July, for example, thanks to an instrument in space, astronomers discovered a new cold brown dwarf called GLASS-JWST-BD1:
The scientific team’s latest findings are now going through the peer review and publication process. The research report has been submitted to the journal Atomic Absorption Spectrometry and is available on the arXiv website.
The James Webb Space Telescope is an international project of the American agency NASA, the European agency ESA and the Canadian agency CSA. It is named after James E. Webb, who was a NASA administrator in the 1960s and played an important role in the Apollo program. The telescope was launched on December 25, 2021 by an Ariane 5 rocket on flight VA256. It is designed to provide better resolution and sensitivity in the infrared spectrum than Hubble, and to image objects up to 100 times fainter than the faintest objects detectable by Hubble.
The Webb TelescopeSource: NASA GSFC, CIL, Adriana Manrique Gutierrez