Unraveling the mysteries of a distant exoplanet, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope reveals striking silicate cloud features and a record number of molecules on VHS 1256 b.
Scientists using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have made a groundbreaking discovery, observing silicate cloud features and multiple molecules in the atmosphere of a distant planet named VHS 1256 b. This intriguing world, with its highly variable atmosphere, orbits two stars and offers researchers a unique opportunity to study its dynamic weather systems and uncover more insights into the mysteries of the universe.
In a groundbreaking discovery, scientists led by Brittany Miles of the University of Arizona have observed silicate cloud features in the atmosphere of a distant planet using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Cataloged as VHS 1256 b, the exoplanet exhibits dramatic brightness changes due to its 22-hour day, making it the most variable planetary-mass object known to date.
Record Number of Molecules Detected
The research team also made exceptionally clear detections of water, methane, carbon monoxide, and evidence of carbon dioxide on VHS 1256 b. This marks the largest number of molecules simultaneously identified on a planet outside our solar system.
VHS 1256 b’s Unique Characteristics
Located about 40 light-years away, VHS 1256 b orbits two stars over a 10,000-year period. The planet’s silicate clouds reach temperatures of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (830 degrees Celsius). Webb’s data revealed both larger and smaller silicate dust grains in the exoplanet’s atmosphere. VHS 1256 b’s low gravity and young age, only 150 million years, contribute to its unique atmosphere and turbulent skies.
“VHS 1256 b is about four times farther from its stars than Pluto is from our Sun, which makes it a great target for Webb,” Miles revealed. “That means the planet’s light is not mixed with light from its stars.” Higher up in its atmosphere, where the silicate clouds are churning, temperatures reach a scorching 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (830 degrees Celsius).
Unprecedented Data from the James Webb Space Telescope
No other telescope has identified so many features at once for a single target. The team’s findings are considered the first “coins” pulled from a treasure chest of data. Brittany Miles stated, “This is not the final word on this planet – it is the beginning of a large-scale modeling effort to fit Webb’s complex data.”
Future Observations and Implications
As the planet ages and moves further from its stars, it will become colder, and its skies may transition from cloudy to clear. Researchers observed VHS 1256 b as part of Webb’s Early Release Science program, designed to improve the astronomical community’s ability to characterize planets and the disks where they form. The team’s paper will be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on March 22.
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