We are now well into the era of exoplanet atmospheres, of measurements made possible by the James Webb Space Telescope.  While prior observatories could detect some chemicals in exoplanet atmospheres,  the limits were substantial. This is an artist’s impression of a hot Jupiter with a thick atmosphere transiting its host star. (NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

The James Webb Space Telescope is beginning to reveal previously unknowable facts about the composition of exoplanets — about the presence or absence of atmospheres around the exoplanets and the makeup of any atmospheres that are detected.

The results have been coming in for some months and they are a delight to scientists.  And as with most things about exoplanets, the results are not always what were expected.

For instance, gas giant planets  orbiting our Sun show a clear pattern; the more massive the planet, the lower the percentage of “heavy” elements (anything other than hydrogen and helium) in the planet’s atmosphere.

The James Webb Space Telescope is returning insights into the atmospheres of exoplanets that scientists have long dreamed about obtaining. Some are predicting a new era in exoplanet research. (NASA)

But out in the galaxy, the atmospheric compositions of giant planets do not fit the solar system trend, an international team of astronomers has found.

Researchers discovered that the atmosphere of exoplanet HD149026b, a “hot jupiter” given the name “Smertrios” that orbits a Sun-like star, is super-abundant in the heavier elements carbon and oxygen – far above what scientists would expect for a planet of its mass.

In its “early release” program for exoplanet results, JWST also observed WASP-39 b, a “hot Saturn” (a planet about as massive as Saturn but in an orbit tighter than Mercury) orbiting a star some 700 light-years away.

The atmosphere around the planet provided the first detection in an exoplanet atmosphere of sulfur dioxide (SO2), a molecule produced from chemical reactions triggered by high-energy light from the planet’s parent star.

The Trappist-1 system –seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star only 40 light-years away — is another subject of great interest and JWST has provided some exciting results there too.

While the first Trappist-1 planet studied — the one nearest to the star — apparently has no atmosphere, JWST was able to in effect take the planet’s temperature.  The telescope captured thermal signatures from the planet, which is another first.

When starlight passes through a planet’s atmosphere, certain parts of the light are absorbed by the atmosphere’s elements.

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