NASA Spots Methane on Distant Exoplanet for The First Time

NASA’s scientists recently studied the data obtained by the James Webb Space Telescope from a distant exoplanet named WASP-80 b. The data revealed fascinating details of the atmospheric secrets of the exoplanet. JWST observed the planet as it moved both in front and behind its host star.

The telescope captured a distinctive spectrum indication showing that the planet’s atmosphere contains enriched methane gas and water vapor. During previous observations of other exoplanets, astronomers have spotted water vapor on several occasions.

However, this is the first time methane has been detected on an exoplanet. This fascinating discovery has improved our knowledge of the atmospheres of distant planets.

What You Should Know about the Distant Exoplanet WASP-80 b

WASP-80 b is generally classified as a “warm Jupiter” because of its extreme temperature of about 825 kelvins (1,025 degrees Fahrenheit). It orbits a red dwarf star every three days. The Planet is about 163 light-years away in the constellation Aquila. Its proximity to its host star and massive distance from Earth made it difficult for astronomers to conduct a direct observation of the planet.

However, scientists created another means of studying the transit and eclipse methods. They observe the dimming of starlight as the exoplanet passes in front of and behind its host star.

The transit method enabled researchers to learn more about the exoplanets by studying the dimming of starlight as the planet travels in front of its host star. The planet’s atmosphere also produces a thin ring illuminated by the star offering more details about its composition.

Scientists use the eclipse method to calculate the infrared light emitted by the planet. This significantly offered insights into the planet’s thermal radiation. Hence, it enabled the team to spot molecules in its atmosphere.

How the team Decoded the Spectrum

The team decoded the spectrum by transforming the raw data into spectra. This transformation enabled them to measure the amount of light blocked or discharged by the planet’s atmosphere at different wavelengths.

The researchers also deployed two distinct modeling approaches to simulate the harsh conditions of the planet’s atmosphere. These two approaches revealed the presence of methane in the WASP-80 b atmosphere.

“In our field, we regard the ‘gold standard’ to be something called a ‘5-sigma detection,’ meaning the odds of a detection being caused by random noise are 1 in 1.7 million,” wrote the researchers in a blog. “We detected methane at 6.1-sigma in both the transit and eclipse spectra, which sets the odds of a spurious detection in each observation at 1 in 942 million, surpassing the 5-sigma ‘gold standard,’ and reinforcing our confidence in both detections.”

Comparing the New Discovery To Our Solar System

The team did not conclude their observation like that. They created a new opportunity to compare the exoplanets with planets in our star system. The team revealed that by measuring methane levels, an excessiveness of molecules present in the atmospheres of gas giants within our solar system can now be performed via a process named “apples-to-apples” comparison.

By making this comparison, scientists can understand the similarities and differences between planets within our solar system and those in distant solar systems. In addition, the team revealed that they will conduct future investigations of the atmosphere of WASP-80 b at different wavelengths using additional observations that will be conducted by Webb’s MIRI and NIRCam instruments.

“Our findings lead us to think that we will be able to observe other carbon-rich molecules such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, enabling us to paint a more comprehensive picture of the conditions in this planet’s atmosphere,” they wrote.

“As we find methane and other gasses in the exoplanet, we will continue to expand our knowledge about how chemistry and physics work under conditions unlike what we have on Earth, and … other planets that remind us of what we have here at home.”

The team published their findings in the journal Nature.

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