Webb Space Telescope Expected to Reveal a New Exoplanet Photo


Infinite One
Nov 15, 2020
Webb Space Telescope Expected to Reveal a New Exoplanet Photo

by Jeffrey Kluger

Fri, August 26, 2022 at 5:18 PM

At some point things were destined to settle down in the glassed-in mission control room at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md. For much of this year, the Institute has been the center of the astronomical world. After all, it is there that each image captured by the new James Webb Space Telescope first arrives, including the dazzling batch received and released in July. But the real work the Institute team does—analyzing the scientific data embedded in the pictures— is quieter, less flashy stuff.

Still, this week, as NASA reports, that quiet was broken by a new analysis of one of the July images. And, as TIME has just learned, Webb will stir even more excitement soon with a much-anticipated first-of-its-kind photo release. Together, the STScI team’s continued photo analysis will tell us more than ever about solar systems beyond our own—and the possibility that life could exist there.

To begin, this week STScI researchers announced that Webb had taken a big step in its search for biology’s chemical fingerprints on distant exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars): the discovery of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet known as WASP-39 b. It marks the first clear detection of CO2 in the atmosphere of any planet outside of the eight that circle our own sun.

WASP-39 b is what astronomers rather unscientifically refer to as a puffy planet, with a diameter 1.3 times that of Jupiter but a mass only one quarter as great. It also orbits so close to its parent star that its atmosphere reaches a broiling 900º C (1,600º F). The presence of organic chemistry notwithstanding, WASP-39 b is thus not the kind of place astronomers would expect to go looking for life. Still the presence of CO2 on the planet, combined with water vapor, sodium and potassium that the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes had already discovered there, is one more bit of proof that the universe is, among other things, a giant organic chemistry set, one in which the stuff of biology is found pretty much anywhere. That holds promise for similar discoveries on rockier, more temperate worlds, where life could take hold.

“Detecting such a clear signal of carbon dioxide on WASP-39 b bodes well for the detection of atmospheres on smaller, terrestrial-sized planets,” said astronomer Natalie Batalha, of the University of California at Santa Cruz, who leads the team that made the discovery, in a statement. With more than 5,000 exoplanets having been spotted throughout the galaxy, astronomers now believe that virtually every star in the universe is circled by at least one planet—and many, like our own sun, by a whole litter of them. That’s a lot of places for biology to take hold.

Meantime, expect bigger news from Webb in the coming weeks—and a lot more hoopla descending on the STScI mission control. While astronomers have been able to study the atmosphere of exoplanets by analyzing the changes in the wavelength of light that streams through the air of the planet as it passes in front of its parent star, no one has ever captured a picture of an exoplanet itself. That, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told TIME in a conversation last week, is about to change, thanks to Webb.

“Just a sneak preview,” he said, “the next photo you’re going to get [from Webb] is of an exoplanet. I don’t know when they’re coming out with it and I haven’t seen it yet. But…it’s just opening up all new understanding of the universe to us.”

James Webb Space Telescope Captures Jupiter’s Dazzling Auroras


The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has aimed its impressive camera system relatively close to home and captured a pair of gorgeous photos of Jupiter’s auroras.

The pair of images, published by the European Space Agency (ESA) and spotted by Engadget, shows both a wide and close-up view of the gas giant’s gorgeous storms, winds, and auroras whose observations will give scientists more clues to what it is like on Jupiter.


The first image, above, is a wide-field view that showcases Jupiter’s and its faint rings (which the ESA says are a million times fainter than the planet itself) along with two of its moons: Amalthea and Adrastea. The “fuzzy” spots in the lower background are what ESA scientists speculate are galaxies “photobombing” the Jovian view.

“With giant storms, powerful winds, auroras, and extreme temperature and pressure conditions, Jupiter has a lot going on. Now, the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has captured new images of the planet. Webb’s Jupiter observations will give scientists even more clues to Jupiter’s inner life,” the ESA says.

The photo is a composite image from the JWST’s NIRCam instrument (two filters) and was captured on July 27, 2022.

The second photo, below, is a closeup of the gas giant again using JWST’s NIRCam and three of its specialized infrared filters that are used to reveal details of the planet. The NIRCam captures in infrared light, which is not visible to the human eye. To make the image something that can be enjoyed, astronomers collaborated with citizen scientist Judy Schmidt to translate the Webb data into visible images. Longer wavelengths of light appear redder while the shorter ones appear bluer.


The photo has been created from a composite of several images taken from the JWST and shows visible auroras that extend to high altitude above both the northern and southern poles of the planet.

“The auroras shine in a filter that is mapped to redder colors, which also highlights light reflected from lower clouds and upper hazes. A different filter, mapped to yellows and greens, shows hazes swirling around the northern and southern poles,” the ESA explains.

“A third filter, mapped to blues, showcases light that is reflected from a deeper main cloud. The Great Red Spot, a famous storm so big it could swallow Earth, appears white in these views, as do other clouds, because they are reflecting a lot of sunlight.”
These photos are the second batch that the JWST has captured of Jupiter. The first set was revealed in mid-July and was part of the telescope’s commissioning report. Webb captured those photos of Jupiter during a performance test for its ability to track moving targets — a test it passed handily.

Image Credits: Header image by NASA, ESA, and Jupiter ERS Team with image processing by Ricardo Hueso (UPV/EHU) and Judy Schmidt. Second photo is by NASA, ESA, and Jupiter ERS Team, with image processing by Judy Schmidt.