Scientists have announced the discovery of the first-ever exoplanet found with NASAs James Webb Space Telescope. The rocky world orbits an extraterrestrial red dwarf star so closely that it completes one complete orbit once every two Earth days.
Earth, unique as it is, is just one of tens of billions of planets thought to populate the Milky Way. The worlds that exist outside of our solar system and orbit alien stars are called exoplanets.
With the help of powerful modern telescopes, astronomers have succeeded confirm the existence of over 5,000 extraterrestrial worldseach with their own unique and sometimes shockingly alien characteristics.
Incredible James Webb Space Telescope images
Now astronomers have made the first confirmed discovery of a new exoplanet with the sharp golden eye of the JWST.
The candidate world — known as LHS 475 b — was first identified by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS is designed to capture a wide-field view of the cosmos to look for tiny, periodic dips in the light from distant stars that could indicate the presence of an orbiting exoplanet passing between the telescope and its stellar guardian.
One such light signature was detected from a red dwarf star orbiting within the Milky Way, 41 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Octans. After the initial discovery, the JWST was tasked with observing the distant star on August 31 last year.
The first results from the flagship telescope confirmed the presence of a rocky exoplanet with a diameter 99% of Earth’s diameter orbiting the red dwarf. The frequency of the parent star’s bursts of light also showed that LHS 475 b orbits its star in an incredibly tight orbit – closer even than that of our Solar System’s innermost planet, Mercury our sun.
Its orbit is so close that the planet can complete one full orbit of its relatively cool parent star every two Earth days.
Despite the quality of the JWST data, the team is still unsure whether or not the newly discovered world harbors an atmosphere. However, scientists were able to rule out the presence of certain elements, including methane.
“The data from the observatory is beautiful,” said astrophysicist Erin May of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in a NASA statement. “The telescope is so sensitive that it can easily detect a range of molecules, but we can’t draw any definitive conclusions about the planet’s atmosphere yet.”
It’s still possible that the world harbors a compact atmosphere composed 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 orbiting a star half as hot as the Sun.
By studying distant worlds orbiting distant stars, astronomers can unravel the mysteries of how the planets in our solar system and the planets found throughout the cosmos formed and evolved. The holy grail of exoplanet exploration, however, would be discovering a world orbiting in a star’s habitable zone — the region where liquid water can exist on a planet’s surface — that contains the right ingredients for extraterrestrial life to develop.
The JWST’s ability to characterize exoplanet atmospheres and search for possible signs of life represents a powerful tool in humanity’s ongoing mission to explore strange new worlds and ultimately shed light on the question whether humanity is alone in the universe.
“These first observations from an Earth-sized rocky planet open the door to many future possibilities for studying rocky planet atmospheres with Webb,” said Mark Clampin, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Webb is bringing us closer to a new understanding of Earth-like worlds outside our solar system, and the mission is just beginning.”
Anthony is a freelance contributor who covers science and video game news for IGN. He has over eight years of groundbreaking experience in multiple scientific fields and absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer
Photo credit: NASA