The James Webb Space Telescope turns its 6.5-meter gold-coated mirror toward the exoplanet WASP-17b. The first observational data indicate that the clouds floating in the atmosphere of this planet do not resemble the clouds known from the surface of the Earth. It is composed of quartz.
WASP-17b is a massive gas planet located about 1,300 light-years away. Worlds like these are very interesting to astronomers because we have no equivalent in our own planetary system, so we know little about their internal shape.
W condition Published on October 16 in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters An international team of scientists described their comprehensive observations of the planet using the James Webb Space Telescope.
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The planet itself was discovered in 2009, nearly a decade before James Webb was sent into orbit. The planet’s orbit is very close to the central star, causing its atmosphere to heat up to 1,500 degrees Celsius. Measurements made over the years indicate that the planet is twice the size of Jupiter, and has twice the mass of Jupiter. This in turn means that it is surprisingly light. It is possible that under these conditions the atmosphere is very puffy.
In this thin, puffy atmosphere, the James Webb Space Telescope discovered something surprising: clouds made of tiny, solid quartz crystals.
Astronomers had previously assumed the presence of aerosols in the planet’s atmosphere. This has been indicated by observations made, for example, by the Hubble Space Telescope. However, no one expected that these clouds and fog would consist of tiny quartz crystals.
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This surprising discovery can be indicated by the fact that these are the first silica particles to be discovered in the atmosphere of any exoplanet. You might think that we could also find rocky particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. But the problem is that in the case of Earth, it is usually lifted from the surface of the planet by winds. In the case of the gas giant WASP-17b, everything indicates that these crystals formed in the atmosphere itself under the influence of intense radiation, high temperature and pressure. Analyzing how light is scattered by these particles allowed scientists to estimate that each crystal is only 10 nanometers in diameter, a million times smaller than a typical grain of sand.
Due to its short distance from its host star, tidal forces keep WASP-17 b constantly facing the same side toward its star. For this reason, scientists cannot determine whether quartz clouds exist in the entire atmosphere of the planet or only in part of it. It is possible that the clouds float only on the dark side of the planet and evaporate when the wind blows them to the day side.
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