James Webb telescope has found a raging dust storm on a planet outside our solar system: Why it matters

Amrutha Pagad
Amrutha PagadMar 23, 2023 | 10:12

James Webb telescope has found a raging dust storm on a planet outside our solar system: Why it matters

Illustration of the exoplanet VHS 1256b. Photo: webbtelescope.org

The James Webb Space Telescope has made another remarkable discovery about our universe. But this time, it doesn't have any pretty pictures. For the first time ever, scientists have found a swirling dust storm raging on an exoplanet, a planet outside of our solar system. 

This is the first time that researchers have been able to identify a large number of molecules on an exoplanet. The team detected water, methane and carbon monoxide, and even evidence of carbon dioxide using Webb's data. 

No other telescope has identified so many features at once for a single target. We're seeing a lot of molecules in a single spectrum from Webb that detail the planet's dynamic cloud and weather systems.
- Andrew Skemer, co-author, University of California, Santa Cruz

The discovery:

  • If there was a weather channel on exoplanet VHS 1256b, it would say to prepare for "scattered, patchy clouds made up of silicates". 
  • Researchers using JWST found evidence that the clouds on the exoplanet are made of silicate particles 

Silicate particles: Any of a large number of common minerals formed of silica, oxygen, and one or more other elements (cambridge.org).

There are probably multiple layers of silicate grains. The ones that we're seeing are some of the very, very fine grains that are higher up in the atmosphere, but there may be bigger grains deeper down in the atmosphere.
- Beth Biller, co-author, University of Edinburgh
  • This cloud is also moving. The silicates are thought to get heavy over a period of time and rain down on the planet. 
  • The discovery means that there is a dynamic atmosphere on a planet 40 light-years away from Earth.
Data collected by James Webb telescope. Photo: webbtelescope.org

What do we know about the exoplanet? 

  • VHS 1256b was discovered in Chile in 2015. It's called a "super Jupiter", kind of similar to the gas sphere we have in our Solar System, only bigger.
  • It circles two stars (or suns) at a great distance. There's a 22-hour day cycle. The planet is also expected to take 10,000 years to orbit its two suns. 
  • The Webb study has now confirmed that the red-looking planet is indeed dusty. But not like a dust storm on a typical desert on Earth.
It's kind of like if you took sand grains, but much finer. We're talking silicate grains the size of smoke particles.
- Beth Biller, co-author, University of Edinburgh
  • It's also pretty hot. Co-author Biller says the cloud-top temperature may be similar to the temperature of a candle flame. 
  • The planet itself is very young in astronomical terms. It's only about 150 million years old (FYI, Earth is over 4 billion years old).

Why are we learning about the atmosphere of the exoplanet? 

It's fascinating because it illustrates how different clouds on another planet can be from the water vapour clouds we are familiar with on Earth.
- Beth Biller to the BBC
  • The James Webb Space Telescope's primary mission is to study the "other worlds" out there, the ones beyond our solar system.  
  • The comparison of the atmospheres on exoplanets and on Earth also helps us understand atmospheric processes like the greenhouse effect, aerosol, and cloud physics among other aspects.
  • And the question often circles back to the origins of life. Scientists are also looking to find whether some exoplanets may have conditions suitable to host life.
  • The atmosphere of a planet gives crucial details on whether there are any building blocks for life elsewhere in the universe. 

On the other side, Japanese scientists recently theorised that the building blocks of life on Earth may have first formed in the space. The scientists discovered "amino acids and other organic matter" on samples from asteroid Ryugu, which was brought back to Earth in 2020 after a 6-year mission.

Last updated: March 23, 2023 | 11:10
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