The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has unveiled new features about the atmosphere of a distant planet 40 light-years away from Earth, which include the swirling sandstorms in its scorching atmosphere.
The presence of silicate clouds blanketing the alien world, along with a rising and mixing atmosphere, were confirmed by researchers using the JWST, according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The planet, designated VHS 1256 b, is located within a relatively young triple brown dwarf system approximately 40 light years away. The planet orbits a pair of stars over a period of 10,000 years, which are roughly four times farther from it than the distance between the Sun and Pluto.
Its unique position in relation to its nearest stars also made it an ideal target for Webb because it is far enough away that the light these stars produce doesn’t pollute the telescope’s observations.
Over the course of its 22-hour day, hot material from higher up in its atmosphere–where average temperatures can reach as much as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit–is constantly being moved toward the surface of the planet. With colder material being relocated downward, this results in periodic shifts in brightness observed in data collected by the JWST.
According to a JPL statement, the unique features displayed by the planet are believed to represent the greatest variance in a planetary-mass object ever observed.
Additional detections of methane, carbon monoxide, and water that the Webb team called “extraordinarily clear,” along with evidence of carbon dioxide found in data the telescope collected, are believed to represent the single greatest number of molecules all simultaneously observed on a planet beyond our solar system.
The incredible detail provided in the data by Webb has also revealed that silicate dust grains of varying sizes are present within the clouds encircling VHS 1256 b, resulting in scorching hot sandstorms that blanket the alien world.
“We’ve identified silicates, but better understanding which grain sizes and shapes match specific types of clouds is going to take a lot of additional work,” said Brittany Miles of the University of Arizona, who led the team’s research.
“The finer silicate grains in its atmosphere may be more like tiny particles in smoke,” said Beth Biller of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who co-authored a new paper on the research team’s findings. Biller added that the largest grains observed could be comparable to very hot particles of sand.
One reason larger particles like these may be able to remain aloft in silicate clouds like this has to do with VHS 1256 b’s low gravity in comparison to other, much larger brown dwarfs. At only an estimated 150 million years old, the planet is also relatively young, which means it is still undergoing its cooling stage, which will likely continue for several billions of years like Earth once did in its distant past.
The detections remain unrivaled in terms of the number of molecules observed and details about the sandstorms and other weather systems occurring in the planet’s atmosphere. However, Miles said that there was still much work to be done and that the team’s findings are only the beginning of what astronomers eventually hope to learn about distant planets like VHS 1256 b.
“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.”
Miles, Biller, and the team’s paper, “The JWST Early Release Science Program for Direct Observations of Exoplanetary Systems II: A 1 to 20 Micron Spectrum of the Planetary-Mass Companion VHS 1256-1257 b,” was published on March 22 in The Astrophysical Journal.