Nasa’s telescope unveils a planet experiencing sand precipitation.
The groundbreaking observations from NASA’s James Webb space telescope have unveiled a planet where grains of sand fall as precipitation.
The celestial body known as Wasp-107b is located 200 light years from Earth in the Virgo constellation. This planet has intrigued astronomers due to its unique characteristics – while it is massive, it is also surprisingly lightweight, earning it the moniker “candy floss” planet. Recent observations have revealed fascinating details about this distant world, including the presence of silicate sand clouds, intense heat, strong winds, and the distinct smell of sulphur dioxide reminiscent of burnt matches.
According to Professor Leen Decin, from the Catholic University of Leuven and lead author of the study, our understanding of other planets is limited to what we know from Earth. This limited knowledge greatly restricts our understanding.
The discovery of the planet was made in 2017 when astronomers observed a characteristic flickering of light from its host star whenever the planet crossed its path. According to Decin, this can be likened to a fly passing in front of a street lamp, resulting in a slight decrease in brightness.
James Webb advances these observations by detecting starlight that has been altered by passing through the atmosphere of the planet. Since various elements absorb distinct wavelengths of light, the range of starlight reveals the existence of specific gases.
Wasp-107b is similar in mass to Neptune but almost the size of Jupiter, and its vast, diffuse nature allows the James Webb telescope to peer deep into its atmosphere.
“The target is highly desirable due to its fluffy nature. Among all the planets, it is one of the fluffiest and provides large signals when observing its atmosphere,” stated Dr. Joanna Barstow, a planetary scientist from Open University who is conducting independent measurements of the same planet using JWST. “We have been making predictions for the past decade, but the reality of what we are observing and the quality of the data has exceeded our expectations. It has been an incredibly thrilling experience.”
New findings reported in the scientific journal Nature show the presence of water vapor and sulfur dioxide on a distant planet, potentially creating a distinctive scent of scorched matches in its atmosphere. Additionally, this is the first instance of identifying the chemical makeup of clouds on a different planet, specifically those composed of silicate sand.
The atmosphere of the planet would have a similar process to Earth’s water cycle, except with sand transitioning between solid and gaseous states. In the warmer and lower part of the atmosphere, where temperatures reach around 1,000C, silicate vapour would rise, cool down, and form tiny sand particles that are too small to see. Over time, these clouds of sand dust would become dense enough to rain back down to the lower levels of the atmosphere. Below a certain point, the sand would turn back into vapour, completing the cycle.
Decin described the clouds as a dusty haze, with sand particles moving at incredibly fast speeds of a few kilometers per second.
The main goal of the James Webb space telescope is to study the atmospheres of faraway planets and look for gases that could be signs of life. However, Wasp-107b is not considered a probable option due to its extreme temperature of 1,000C and the absence of a solid surface. According to Decin, it is completely inhospitable for us.
Studying the atmospheres of small, rocky planets similar to Earth will be harder due to their typically thinner and denser atmospheres. Nonetheless, the promising amount of information gathered from objects like Wasp-107b is viewed as a positive development.
Decin stated, “The universe holds countless unexpected wonders. I believe there could be multiple potential paths for life to arise on other planets. It may differ greatly from anything we are familiar with on Earth. We must expand our minds and think beyond our current knowledge.”