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Outer Space

How astronomers may be able to pinpoint potential alien worlds

"We are going to be able to see the big picture of exoplanet atmospheres.

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(Photo by Miriam Espacio via Pexels)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

A hellish planet 700 light years away has sulphur dioxide and other Earth like gases in its atmosphere allowing astronomers to pinpoint potential alien worlds, according to new research.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has captured the first clear picture of a distant world's skies.

It also shows the presence of sodium, potassium, water, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Patches of clouds are scattered across the "hot Saturn" - which is too scorching to be habitable.

But the discovery is an important breakthrough - offering alien hunters hope of identifying worlds that are.

The exoplanet named Bocaprins orbits its star every four days - at a distance 20 times closer than Earth is to the sun. It lies in the constellation of Virgo.

Daytime temperatures reach 1,430 degrees Fahrenheit (776.7 degrees Celsius). They don't drop much at night due to powerful winds which transport the heat.

Data from four infrared instruments on the JWST provide the first full breakdown of the atmosphere of a planet outside the solar system.

They include its atoms, molecules, broken up cloud formations - and even chemical reactions driven by starlight.

Co-author Katy Chubb, of the University of St Andrews, said: "The large range of wavelengths allows us to build a complete as possible picture of this atmosphere as we can."

Only computer simulations that included sulphur dioxide reproduced a peculiar 'bump' in the light that caused the signal.

Co-author Dr. Eric Hebrard, of the University of Exeter, said: "We were very surprised
because as soon as we each independently implemented the sulphur chemistry, it fit
right away."

Levels were far higher than they should be if the planet is made only from material created when the star system formed, reports New Scientist.

The only explanation is light from the planet's star caused a chain of chemical reactions - and produced the sulphur dioxide.

Co-author Professor Nikku Madhusudhan, of the University of Cambridge, said: "We haven't been able to probe such processes in the deep atmosphere before the JWST era."

The study builds on a recent analysis that discovered traces of the greenhouse gas CO2 on Bocaprins - but none of the others.

Early observations of the oxygen-to-carbon ratio suggests the planet formed far away from its star, said Chubb.

It also bodes well for discovering more compounds produced by photochemical processes - such as ozone on Earth.

Hebrard said: "Even if Bocaprins is very different than what we have on Earth - it is hot, it is hydrogen dominated, you don't want to live there - having that first detection of a photochemical product is one way forward."

Other compounds there include sodium, potassium and water vapor - confirming previous observations by Hubble.

Co-author Dr. Shang-Min Tsai, of the University of Oxford, said: "This is the first time we have seen concrete evidence of photochemistry - chemical reactions initiated by energetic stellar light - on exoplanets.

"I see this as a really promising outlook for advancing our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres."

The diverse chemical inventory suggests multiple smaller bodies, called planetesimals, merged to create an eventual goliath - as big as our solar system's second-largest planet.

Co-author Dr. Nestor Espinoza, of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, said: "This is just the first out of many exoplanets that are going to be studied in detail by JWST. We are already getting very exciting results. This is just the beginning."

It has already performed beyond expectations - promising a new phase of exploration on the broad variety of worlds in the Milky Way.

Added co-author Dr. Laura Flagg, of Cornell University, New York: "We are going to be able to see the big picture of exoplanet atmospheres.

"It is incredibly exciting to know everything is going to be rewritten. That is one of the best parts of being a scientist."

Ultimately, it could lead to achieving JWST’s ultimate mission goals - finding signs of extraterrestrial life.

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