“Researchers get first up-close look at mysterious planet’s atmosphere”, UChicago News

May 11, 2023

This artist’s concept depicts GJ 1214b, a mini-Neptune, with what is likely a steamy, hazy atmosphere. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

By Louise Lerner

Scientists are eager to understand more about the type of planet known as "sub-Neptunes”—that is, smaller than Neptune but larger than Earth—because evidence suggests they are actually the most common type of planet in the Milky Way. We now think they exist around at least 50% of all stars like our sun in the galaxy, but there are none in our solar system, so we understand very little about what they’re made up of and how they form.  

GJ 1214b was discovered in late 2009, but until now, our picture of it has been murky. 

“It’s been an extremely frustrating planet to study because it has all these clouds in the atmosphere, which really blocked our ability to see anything else,” said University of Chicago astrophysicist Prof. Jacob Bean, who co-led the observation team. “It’s kind of like a gray foggy day here in Chicago where you look out and can’t see the skyline of the city or the lake—it’s boring and a little depressing.” 

The JWST telescope, however, has the power to see “through” the clouds by measuring the infrared light emitted by the planet. “It’s like seeing Chicago on a sunny day instead. You can see everything, and the picture becomes so much richer and more beautiful,” said Bean.

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