UA astronomers make 1st observation of exoplanet from Webb images

Arizona researchers have been waiting years for this moment in science
UA astronomers make 1st observation of exoplanet from Webb images
Published: Sep. 5, 2022 at 8:48 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has sent back its first batch of stunning images from inside and outside the solar system.

They’re certainly breathtaking, but what do they mean?

Scientists at famed University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Lab have waited years to make new observations. The very first came from gas giant planet WASP-39 b, which is 700 light-years from Earth.

UA researchers, including postdoctoral research associate Sarah Moran, have waited years for this moment.

“It’s this game of will we see nothing, will there be a huge discovery, we don’t know until we see the data,” Moran said.

For Moran and hundreds of others who study exoplanets around the world, the Webb images are a scientific windfall. Never before has Moran been able to see a key molecule like carbon dioxide so clearly from so far away.

“It’s fairly rare that there’s something there that’s just so obvious by eye... and we’re like, ‘This is it, we found what we came to find,’” Moran said.

All of this work is a journey toward discovering new worlds.

“It’s coming up with stories to explain what we see out in the universe and each of these planets is a new character that we get to meet and spin together the story of the universe,” Moran said.

She and colleague Everett Schlawin weave their tale from a rainbow of molecules. Each one has a special set of colors; a fingerprint that gives away its identity to the scientists.

The blip on the Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectorgraph was hard to miss.

“It used to be so hard to find a little tiny bump for water,” Schlawin said. “But now there’s the water and this huge carbon dioxide feature that we can see better than we ever could before.”

WASP-39 B is unlikely to support life, but the clarity of the images shows what’s possible.

“By seeing carbon dioxide on a rocky planet it shows us this planet maybe could support life it’s sort of the first step,” said Moran.

Sarah and Everett will be waiting for new Webb data dumps throughout the year ahead.