February 1, 2023

NASA’s Webb Space Telescope Primed To Reveal Secrets of Galaxy’s Most Mysterious Planets

Illustration comparing the sizes of sub-Neptune exoplanets TOI-421 b and GJ 1214 b to Earth and Neptune. Both TOI-421 b and GJ 1214 b remain in between Earth and Neptune in regards to radius, density, and mass. The low densities of the 2 exoplanets shows that they must have thick atmospheres. The worlds are arranged from left to right in order of increasing radius and mass: Image of Earth from the Deep Space Climate Observatory: Earth is a rocky world with an average radius of approximately 6,370 kilometers, a mass of about 6 billion trillion metric tons, and a density 5.5 times that of water.Illustration of TOI-421 b: TOI-421 b is a hot sub-Neptune exoplanet with a radius 2.68 times Earth, a mass 7.2 times Earth, and a density 2.05 times water.Illustration of GJ 1214 b: GJ 1214 b is a warm sub-Neptune exoplanet with a radius 2.74 times Earth, a mass 8.2 times Earth, and a density 2.2 times water.Image of Neptune from Voyager 2: Neptune is an ice giant with a radius 3.88 times that of Earth (providing it a volume nearly 58 times Earth), a mass 17 times Earth, and a density of just 1.6 times water.The illustration reveals the worlds to scale in regards to radius, but not location in area or distance from their stars. While Earth and Neptune orbit the Sun, TOI-421 b orbits a sun-like star roughly 244 light-years away, and GJ 1214 b orbits a small red dwarf star about 48 light-years away.Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and D. Player (STScI).
Over half of the Sun-like galaxy surveyed in the Milky Way harbor a mysterious type of world unlike any in our own planetary system.
Bigger than Earth, smaller than Neptune, and orbiting closer to their stars than Mercury orbits the Sun, these warm-to-hot sub-Neptunes are the most common kind of world observed in the galaxy. However although scientists have been able to determine standard homes– consisting of mass, size, and orbit– of numerous these worlds, their essential nature remains unclear.
Are they thick, Earth-like balls of rock and iron, blanketed in thick layers of hydrogen and helium gas? Or less dense mixtures of rock and ice, surrounded by steamy, water-rich environments? With limited information and no worlds of similar size and orbit in our own planetary system to utilize for contrast, it has been difficult to answer these concerns.
” What are these worlds? How do they form? Why does not our planetary system have them? These are fundamental questions,” explains Jacob Bean, an astronomer at the University of Chicago who has led many observations of exoplanets.
Illustration of what exoplanet TOI-421 b may look like. TOI-421 b is a hot sub-Neptune-sized exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star roughly 244 light-years from Earth.
The Haze Problem.
The secret to finding out what sub-Neptunes are made from and how they formed is examining their atmospheres. However getting a clear view has actually not been easy.
The most effective technique of analyzing exoplanet environments is a method referred to as transmission spectroscopy. When the planet is transiting its star, some wavelengths (colors) of starlight are filtered out by gases in the worlds environment. Because each type of gas has a distinct “signature,” or set of wavelengths that it absorbs, its possible to figure out what an atmosphere is made of based on patterns in the transmission spectrum.
This method has been effective for many exoplanets, however not for many sub-Neptunes. “There have actually been extremely couple of climatic observations of sub-Neptune worlds,” discusses Eliza Kempton of the University of Maryland– College Park, who focuses on theoretical modeling of exoplanet environments. “And most of those have actually been disappointing in that the spectra have actually not exposed much in the method of spectral features that would enable us to identify the gases in the atmosphere.”.
Possible transmission spectrum of the hot sub-Neptune exoplanet TOI-421 b. A transmission spectrum reveals the quantity of starlight of different wavelengths (colors) that is blocked by the planets environment. Researchers use computer designs to anticipate what spectra will appear like presuming specific plausible climatic conditions such as temperature level, the abundance of different gases, and what types of aerosols exist. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Dani Player (STScI), Eliza Kempton (UMD).
The problem appears to be aerosols, tiny particles, and droplets that make up clouds or haze. These particles scatter starlight, wearing down the popular spectral peaks into subtle undulations and rendering the spectrum essentially useless in terms of determining gas composition.
With Webb, scientists are positive that a much clearer view of sub-Neptunes is on the horizon. 2 observation programs co-led by Bean and Kempton and set up for the very first year of Webb operations will utilize Webbs uniquely effective abilities to probe 2 sub-Neptune-sized worlds: GJ 1214 b, the archetype sub-Neptune; and TOI-421 b, a more recent discovery.
The Sub-Neptune Archetype: GJ 1214 b.
GJ 1214 b, a warm sub-Neptune orbiting a neighboring red dwarf star, has been the topic of lots of examinations. Its short orbital period, large size relative to its star, and comparative distance to Earth make it simple (as exoplanets go) to observe effectively, while its status as the benchmark sub-Neptune– and, according to Bean, “the most mystical exoplanet that we know of”– make it a deserving target of examination.
This simplified diagram of an exoplanet phase curve reveals the modification in overall brightness of a star– planet system as the planet orbits the star. The system looks brighter when more of the lit side of the planet is facing the telescope (complete stage), and dimmer when more of the dark side is dealing with the telescope (brand-new phase). Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Dani Player (STScI).
The team will utilize Webbs Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to gaze at the GJ 1214 system almost constantly for almost 50 hours as the planet finishes a little bit more than one complete orbit. They will then analyze the data in 3 various methods to narrow down the possible combinations of gases and aerosols that comprise GJ 1214 bs atmosphere.
Transmission Spectroscopy: If particles like ammonia, water, or methane are abundant, they ought to be obvious in the transmission spectrum. Mid-infrared light ought to not be scattered by aerosols in the very same method as near-infrared and noticeable light.
Thermal Emission Spectroscopy: Mid-infrared light emitted by the world itself will offer information about the planets temperature and reflectivity, both of which are impacted by the atmosphere. A planet surrounded by dark, sooty, light-absorbing haze, for example, will be warmer than one covered in intense, reflective clouds.
Phase Curve Temperature Mapping: Although Webb will not be able to observe GJ 1214 b straight (the planet is too near to its star), it is sensitive enough to determine really subtle modifications in the overall quantity of light from the system as the planet orbits the star. Researchers will utilize GJ 1214 bs phase curve, a graph of brightness versus stage (i.e., how much of the planets day side is dealing with the telescope) to map the typical temperature of the world with longitude. This will supply extra details about the flow and make-up of the environment.
Hot Sub-Neptune TOI-421 b.
Its not clear what the aerosols surrounding warm sub-Neptunes like GJ 1214 b are made from, but they might be comparable to those that comprise smog-like haze found on Saturns moon Titan. To evaluate this hypothesis, the scientists decided to target TOI-421 b, a world that is similar in size and density to GJ 1214 b, however is believed to be too hot for sooty haze to exist.
Webb will observe TOI-421 b twice as it transits its star, when utilizing the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) and again with the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), to produce a total near-infrared transmission spectrum of the world. If the hypothesis is appropriate and TOI-421 bs skies are clear, the spectrum can be utilized to determine the abundance of molecules like methane, water, and carbon dioxide. If it ends up that TOI-421 b has an aerosol problem after all, the group will use the data to much better understand what those aerosols are made from.
Kempton and Bean are confident that by penetrating elusive sub-Neptune environments in a variety of various methods with Webb, scientists will lastly start to understand not simply these 2 specific objects, however an entire class of planets.
Both the MIRI observations of GJ 1214 b and the NIRISS and NIRSpec observations of TOI-421 b will be performed as part of Webbs Cycle 1 General Observers program. General Observers programs were competitively chosen using a dual-anonymous review system, the exact same system utilized to allocate time on Hubble.
The James Webb Space Telescope will be the worlds premier area science observatory when it releases in 2021. Webb will resolve mysteries in our planetary system, look beyond to far-off worlds around other stars, and probe the strange structures and origins of our universe and our location in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency), and the Canadian Space Agency.

Illustration revealing what exoplanet GJ 1214 b could look like based on current info. GJ 1214 b, a warm sub-Neptune-sized exoplanet approximately 48 light-years from Earth, is among the most studied exoplanets in the galaxy. Previous spectroscopic observations indicate that the world is shrouded in aerosols (clouds or haze), which have thus far made it difficult to identify the composition of gases that make up its thick atmosphere. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and D. Player (STScI).
NASAs James Webb Space Telescope Primed to Lift the Haze Surrounding Sub-Neptunes.
Detailed atmospheric studies will provide key insights into a few of the most common– and strange– worlds known in the galaxy.
The Milky Way is chock-full of enigmatic worlds bigger than Earth but somewhat smaller sized than Neptune, racing around their stars quicker and better than Mercury orbits the Sun. Light-years away, obscured by haze or clouds, and with absolutely nothing comparable in our own solar system, the precise nature of these nearly common sub-Neptune-sized planets stays a secret.
With its unequaled capability to measure very subtle differences in the brightness and color of dim infrared light, NASAs James Webb Space Telescope is primed to raise the haze surrounding the nature and origin of the most typical type of world observed in the Milky Way.

Illustration comparing the sizes of sub-Neptune exoplanets TOI-421 b and GJ 1214 b to Earth and Neptune. Both TOI-421 b and GJ 1214 b are in between Earth and Neptune in terms of density, mass, and radius. The worlds are organized from left to right in order of increasing radius and mass: Image of Earth from the Deep Space Climate Observatory: Earth is a rocky world with an average radius of roughly 6,370 kilometers, a mass of about 6 billion trillion metric loads, and a density 5.5 times that of water.Illustration of TOI-421 b: TOI-421 b is a hot sub-Neptune exoplanet with a radius 2.68 times Earth, a mass 7.2 times Earth, and a density 2.05 times water.Illustration of GJ 1214 b: GJ 1214 b is a warm sub-Neptune exoplanet with a radius 2.74 times Earth, a mass 8.2 times Earth, and a density 2.2 times water.Image of Neptune from Voyager 2: Neptune is an ice giant with a radius 3.88 times that of Earth (giving it a volume almost 58 times Earth), a mass 17 times Earth, and a density of only 1.6 times water.The illustration reveals the worlds to scale in terms of radius, however not place in area or distance from their stars. While Earth and Neptune orbit the Sun, TOI-421 b orbits a sun-like star roughly 244 light-years away, and GJ 1214 b orbits a little red dwarf star about 48 light-years away.Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and D. Player (STScI).
Stage Curve Temperature Mapping: Although Webb will not be able to observe GJ 1214 b straight (the planet is too close to its star), it is sensitive enough to determine really subtle modifications in the overall amount of light from the system as the world orbits the star.

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