Scientists have announced the discovery of the very first exoplanet found using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The rocky world orbits an alien red dwarf star so closely that it completes a complete circuit once every two Earth days.
Earth, though unique, is only one of the tens of billions of planets believed to populate the Milky Way. The worlds that exist outside our solar system, orbiting alien stars, are known as exoplanets.
Using powerful modern telescopes, astronomers have been able to confirm the existence of over 5,000 alien worlds, each with their own unique and sometimes shocking alien characteristics.
Incredible James Webb Space Telescope images
Now astronomers have made the first confirmed discovery of a new exoplanet using the sharp golden eye of JWST.
The candidate world – known as LHS 475 b – was first identified by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS was designed to take a wide-angle view of the cosmos to look out for small, periodic dips in the light of distant stars that might indicate the presence of an orbiting exoplanet passing between the telescope and its guardian star.
Such a light signature was discovered from a red dwarf star orbiting the Milky Way 41 light-years from Earth in the constellation Octanes. After the initial discovery, JWST was tasked with observing the distant star on August 31 last year.
Initial results from the flagship telescope confirmed the presence of a rocky exoplanet with a diameter of 99% that of Earth, orbiting the red dwarf. The frequency of light falls from its parent star also revealed that LHS 475 b travels around its star in an incredibly tight orbit – closer than the orbit that our solar system’s innermost planet, Mercury, orbits our sun.
Its orbit is so close that the planet is able to complete a full circuit of its relatively cool parent star once every two Earth days.
Despite the quality of the JWST data, the team is not yet sure whether the newly discovered world hosts an atmosphere or not. However, scientists have been able to rule out the presence of certain elements, including methane.
“The observatory’s data is beautiful,” astrophysicist Erin May of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory explained in a NASA statement. “The telescope is so sensitive that it can easily detect a variety of molecules, but we cannot yet make any definitive conclusions about the planet’s atmosphere.”
It is still possible that the world hosts a compact atmosphere composed entirely of carbon dioxide. Such an atmosphere would be difficult to detect, but the resulting greenhouse effect would help explain why the planet is hundreds of degrees hotter than Earth despite orbiting a star half the temperature of the Sun.
By studying distant worlds orbiting distant stars, astronomers can reveal the secrets of how the planets in our solar system, and those scattered throughout the cosmos, formed and evolved. However, the holy grail of exoplanet exploration would be the discovery of a world orbiting a star’s habitable zone—the region where liquid water can exist on a planet’s surface—that has the right ingredients for the development of extraterrestrial life.
JWST’s ability to characterize exoplanet atmospheres and search for potential signs of life represents a powerful tool in humanity’s ongoing mission to explore strange new worlds, ultimately shedding light on the question of whether humanity is alone in the universe.
“These first observational results of a rocky Earth-sized planet open the door to many future opportunities for studying atmospheres of rocky planets with Webb,” said Mark Clampin, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The Web is bringing us closer and closer to a new understanding of Earth-like worlds outside our solar system, and the mission is only just beginning.”
Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and video game news for IGN. He has over eight years of experience covering ground-breaking developments in several scientific fields, and absolutely no time for bullshit. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer
Image credit: NASA