Webb Space Telescope captures dust storm on remote planet
Researchers working with data from the James Webb Space Telescope have spotted silicate cloud features in a distant planet’s atmosphere.
NASA said that the atmosphere of the “Tatooine-like world,” known as VHS 1256 b, is constantly rising, mixing and moving during its 22-hour day.
As the atmosphere constantly brings hotter material up – with high temperatures reaching 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit – and pushes colder material down, the result is dramatic brightness changes.
“The resulting brightness changes are so dramatic that it is the most variable planetary-mass object known to date,” NASA said in a release.
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The larger silicate dust grains in the atmosphere may be like very hot, small sand particles.
Furthermore, the scientists also identified the largest number of molecules all at once on a planet outside our solar system, making detections of water, methane and carbon monoxide.
VHS 1256 b is about 40 light-years away from Earth and orbits two stars over a 10,000-year period.
The exoplanet’s turbulent skies are due to a couple of factors.
It has low gravity compared to more massive brown dwarfs, meaning that silicate clouds can appear and remain higher in the atmosphere. Plus, in astronomical terms, it’s a young planet; only 150 million years have passed since it formed.
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Although all the features the team observed have been spotted on other planets elsewhere in the Milky Way by other telescopes, other research teams typically identified only one at a time.
“No other telescope has identified so many features at once for a single target,” research co-author Andrew Skemer of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a statement. “We’re seeing a lot of molecules in a single spectrum from Webb that detail the planet’s dynamic cloud and weather systems.”
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The researchers reached these conclusions by analyzing data from Webb’s NIRSpec and MIRI instruments, with observations as part of Webb’s Early Release Science program.
Their findings were published in a paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.