How the James Webb telescope is ‘set to find strange and bizarre worlds’ | James Webb space telescope

Scientists are uncovering the mysteries of distant and diverse planets with the help of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This $10 billion observatory, launched on Christmas Day 2021, is revolutionizing our understanding of exoplanets, which are worlds that orbit stars other than our sun.

One such peculiar planet is Wasp-107b, located 1,300 light years away from Earth. It features floating quartz crystals above a searing hot atmosphere filled with clouds formed from vaporized sand grains. Another intriguing planet is GJ1214, aptly named the sauna planet. It is eight times the mass of Earth and has a thick, dense atmosphere rich in steam. In the Orion Nebula, astronomers have discovered giant Jupiter-sized planets that are free-floating, unconnected to any parent star.

The JWST comprises a 6.5-meter, gold-plated mirror, a tennis court-sized sunshield, and a range of sophisticated instruments cooled to temperatures just above absolute zero. This configuration allows the telescope to observe the universe in infrared radiation, providing insights into the early stages of the universe’s formation and the birth of stars in dust clouds.

One of the JWST’s significant contributions is its ability to study exoplanets using infrared radiation. Previously, detecting planets outside our solar system was challenging due to their dimness compared to their bright parent stars. However, with advanced cameras and orbiting observatories, scientists can now detect the slight dimming of exoplanets as they pass in front of stars. As a result, over 5,500 exoplanets have been observed thus far, several hundred of which are relatively close to Earth and ideal for study with the JWST.

Trappist-1, a red dwarf star located 40 light years away, is of particular interest to astronomers. It hosts seven small rocky planets, three of which lie in the habitable zone where liquid water could exist. Preliminary analyses of two of these planets, Trappist-1b and Trappist-1c, using the JWST have revealed either no atmosphere or a thin one. However, further studies of the remaining planets in the system are planned.

Scientists are searching for specific biological markers, known as the Big Four (oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, and methane), in exoplanet atmospheres as potential signs of extraterrestrial life. The proportions of these gases may vary, as Earth’s atmosphere had significantly less oxygen billions of years ago. However, even if these markers are present, scientists remain cautious about definitively claiming the presence of life, as indirect measurements can be influenced by non-biological phenomena.

The JWST’s anticipated 10-year lifetime could potentially be extended, allowing for more scientific discoveries. However, over time, the telescope’s performance will degrade due to meteorite impacts and cosmic rays. Therefore, scientists aim to maximize its capabilities while it operates optimally.

While the JWST facilitates various scientific studies, astronomers are particularly excited about its contributions to exoplanet research. By studying the chemistry of exoplanet atmospheres, scientists hope to uncover strange and fascinating worlds beyond our own. The JWST is revolutionizing our understanding of these distant planets, shedding light on their diversity and captivating features.

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