UAE researcher helped show that planet 700 light years away has CO2 in its atmosphere

Jasmina Blecic was part of team using Nasa telescope data to detect carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of planet called Wasp-39b

Exoplanet Wasp-39b and its star. Photo: Nasa / ESA / CSA
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A New York University Abu Dhabi scientist is part of a team of researchers that has discovered the first instance of the presence of carbon dioxide on a planet outside the solar system.

Jasmina Blecic has co-authored a groundbreaking new study that reveals that the gas exists in the atmosphere of Wasp-39b, a giant planet orbiting a star 700 light years from Earth.

The scientists used information from Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope to draw their conclusions about Wasp-39b, which is the first exoplanet — a planet that orbits a star outside the solar system — where carbon dioxide has been detected.

Dr Blecic, of NYUAD’s Centre for Astro, Particle and Planetary Physics, said the telescope is providing information over and above that yielded by other major telescopes, including the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes.

“This was a major excitement for the whole community. We’ve seen something that we didn’t see before,” she said.

“We didn’t know whether the [James Webb Space Telescope] would be sensitive enough to see something that we couldn’t see with Spitzer or Hubble.

“It’s not just that we’ve seen CO2. It’s also that CO2 is really important for future research on the habitable planets. This is super exciting for all the scientists involved.”

A year in four days

Described by Nasa as a hot gas giant, Wasp-39b has a temperature of about 900°C and a diameter well over 10 times that of Earth.

Wasp-39b shows what Nasa calls “extreme puffiness” in its structure, but despite its diffuse nature, it sticks much closer to its star than any planets in our solar system.

It orbits its star one eighth of the distance that Mercury does to the Sun and completes a circuit in a little more than four Earth days.

The latest findings are of particular significance in that they show that the James Webb Space Telescope should be able to detect CO2 on other planets — an indication that they could host life.

Brad Gibson, director of the EA Milne Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Hull in the UK, said the new findings were “exciting for lots of reasons”.

“It’s the first time that we’ve actually detected CO2 outside of our own solar system,” said the professor, whose centre is involved in analysing data of the kind produced by the James Webb Space Telescope.

“It’s the first of what will be many, many detections in the coming years. It’s a big planet, it’s almost certainly not going to have life.

“But it shows we can detect CO2 readily. When we start to detect it in planets that are Earth-sized or Mars-sized, it becomes more interesting.”

Wasp-39b’s orbit is observed edge-on rather than from above, so researchers can look at how its atmosphere absorbs light from its star.

The gases in a planet’s atmosphere absorb different wavelengths or colours of light to particular extents, so determining how much light of certain wavelengths passes through indicates the composition of the atmosphere.

The Near InfraRed Spectrograph, one of four main instruments on the James Webb Space Telescope, showed a peak in absorption at a wavelength absorbed by CO2.

Researchers are analysing information provided by some of the other instruments on the telescope that should enable them to determine the concentration of carbon dioxide in Wasp-39b’s atmosphere.

“I’m thoroughly involved as new data comes, so I will be really busy in the next six months,” said Dr Blecic.

She hopes the telescope, launched in December last year, will provide data for at least the next 15 years, well beyond the stated mission duration, helping astrophysicists gain a much greater understanding of the universe.

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Updated: August 27, 2022, 8:24 AM