No one has ever looked so deeply into the atmosphere of an exoplanet.  The Webb Telescope is pushing boundaries again

The planet itself has been known since 2009, when it was discovered as part of the Mirth Monitoring Project. It is a planet with a mass of 5-7 Earth masses and a diameter three times larger than our planet. It orbits the red dwarf GJ 1214, which is 40 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Ophiuchus. The only thing we know so far about the planet itself is that it is hidden under a thick, opaque layer of clouds or haze, which makes it impossible to see the conditions prevailing on the planet’s surface.

James Webb Space Telescope

Since the planet orbits its parent star in only 1.6 Earth days, it was assumed from the start that it was too hot for a planet to support life. However, scientists initially believed that there was a World Ocean on the surface of the planet, which could evaporate over time, and that the waters that make it up could feed the surrounding atmosphere.

Also read: TOI-1201b – a new small Neptune has been discovered

How do you look inside the atmosphere of a planet outside the solar system?

To delve deeper into the atmosphere, astronomers used James Webb to observe the planet not only during transit, when the star passes in front of its star, but also during almost its entire orbit around the star, that is, except for the short period that the star was in orbit. The planet is hidden behind the star. Observations of this kind, made with the MIRI (mid infrared) instrument, allowed the researchers to map the heat on the planet’s surface. Observations of temperatures in the upper atmosphere just before the planet hid behind its star and after emerging from its far side revealed many details about the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

GJ 1214 b

By observing the day and night sides of the planet, the researchers were able to determine that while the day side is 279 degrees Celsius, the night side is only 165 degrees Celsius. Such a big difference means that the planet’s atmosphere is not primarily hydrogen, but water vapor or methane. An atmosphere of this kind must definitely be the result of evolution. Scientists agree that the planet is no longer formed with such an atmosphere. One theory is that the planet itself may have formed far from its star as a circumplanet and then ascended to a lower orbit. As the planet narrowed its distance from the star, its temperature rose and over time its oceans evaporated, creating a dense atmosphere composed largely of water vapor.

It is worth noting here that the planet’s atmosphere reflects a huge amount of radiation falling on it, and thanks to this, the temperatures on the planet’s surface, although unfriendly to us, are still surprisingly low for such a short distance from the star.

Astronomers confirmThe search for GJ 1214 b is very important. After all, minor Neptunes, or rather sub-Neptunes – as the study authors call this planet – are one of the most common types of planets in our galaxy, while we know so little about them. In the near future, scientists plan to look at other exoplanets in this class in a similar way. Only data from a larger group of planets of this type will allow us to determine how they form and what conditions are typical on their surfaces.

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