James Webb discovers exoplanet with sand clouds and sand rains

November 24, 2023  16:19

Not long ago, it would have been hard to believe, but researchers have managed to discover over 5,500 extraterrestrial worlds orbiting distant stars, and this number is growing every day. Moreover, cutting-edge tools like the James Webb Space Telescope can, in some cases, analyze the atmospheres of these faraway planets, revealing many, to put it mildly, astonishing findings! For instance, the study of the world WASP-107b, located 200 light-years away from us, has shown the presence of sand clouds and sand showers.

The exoplanet WASP-107b in the WASP-107 system in the constellation of Virgo was discovered by the robotic observatory Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) in 2017. It is the second planet in the system, with a diameter roughly equal to that of Jupiter and a mass approaching that of Neptune. In essence, it is a gas giant with a remarkably "fluffy" atmosphere, as noted by the study's authors. This allows scientists to study the planet's atmosphere during "transit," as it passes across the disk of its host star, a task well-suited for Webb's instruments.

Researchers utilized the MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) on the Webb telescope and uncovered many interesting details about the planet WASP-107b, contributing to a better understanding of the evolution and diversity of exoplanets in the universe. Signs of water vapor, sulfur dioxide, and clouds made of "sand" were detected in the atmosphere of WASP-107b, but surprisingly, no traces of methane were found.

The unusual nature of the exoplanet's atmosphere allowed photons from its host star to penetrate deeper, leading to the massive formation of sulfur dioxide, a surprise for this type of world. However, the most astonishing discovery was the presence of clouds made of silicate particles—the main component of Earth's sand. With a temperature of around 500 °C on WASP-107b, clouds formed from silicate particles give rise to rain, falling and evaporating at lower levels, then rising again and collecting into clouds.

Another surprise was the absence of methane in the exoplanet's atmosphere, typically a constant component in the atmospheres of gas giants. Scientists believe that the atmosphere of WASP-107b turned out to be warmer than previously thought, preventing methane from accumulating. Step by step, scientists piece together the puzzle of the diversity of atmospheres on worlds in different parts of the universe, aiming to grasp the patterns and pathways of evolution not only of distant planets but also of our own Earth.

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