NASA’s prolific James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has made yet another stunning discovery.
The pioneering observatory just peered directly into the atmosphere of a giant exoplanet with two suns (like Tatooine from “Star Wars”) known as VHS 1256 b — and found a roiling world with turbulent clouds made of silicates, similar to sand here on Earth, as announced in a recently published article in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
This report of unpleasant but oh-so-interesting exoplanet weather comes from JWST’s unique ability to collect detailed spectra of objects in space, allowing scientists to figure out their compositions. Although JWST has shown us spectra of exoplanets before, this is the first time it has done so by actually collecting light from the planet itself, in a method known as direct imaging.
VHS 1256b lies about 40 light-years away from Earth. It’s a strange world, nothing like our own blue planet. It’s about 19 times more massive than Jupiter, for example, orbits two stars instead of one, and takes almost 10,000 years to go around those host stars.
“VHS 1256 b is about four times farther from its stars than Pluto is from our sun, which makes it a great target for Webb,” said Brittany Miles, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona and lead author on the new study, in a press release. “That means the planet’s light is not mixed with light from its stars.”
The spectra showed signs of clouds made of silicates, which periodically rain down into the depths of the planet, moving about in an atmosphere as hot as a flame, around 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (815 degrees Celsius). Silicate clouds have no equivalent here on Earth, other than maybe being in a cloud of hot sand.
“The finer silicate grains in its atmosphere may be more like tiny particles in smoke,” said University of Edinburgh astrophysicist Beth Biller, part of the research team, in the press release. “The larger grains might be more like very hot, very small sand particles.”
The team also detected water, methane, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide on VHS 1256b — a whole slew of different chemicals, making this the “largest number of molecules ever identified all at once on a planet outside our solar system,” according to the press release. The team is still working on sorting through all those detected particles, revising their models to figure out the tempestuous atmosphere on this exoplanet.
“This is not the final word on this planet,” Miles said. “It is the beginning of a large-scale modeling effort to fit Webb’s complex data.”