November 18, 2022
Known for beaming stunning images back to Earth, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope just scored another first: an incredibly detailed chemical portrait of a distant world’s skies—including what its clouds look like.
The telescope’s array of highly sensitive instruments was trained on the atmosphere of a planet orbiting a star some 700 light-years away – known as WASP-39 b.
While we already had isolated ingredients of this broiling-hot planet’s atmosphere, the new readings provide a full menu of atoms, molecules, and even signs of active chemistry and clouds. The latest data also give a hint of how these clouds might look up close: broken up rather than a single, uniform blanket over the planet.
The suite of discoveries is detailed in a set of five new scientific papers submitted for publication.
“We don’t understand the physics of clouds on other planets, but we know that they are a common phenomenon,” said Adina Feinstein, a University of Chicago graduate student and first author of the paper. “These findings give us constraints that we can use to determine the composition and typical size of the cloud particles.”