In deep space, a planet has been found that NASA has dubbed “mini-Neptune” due to its resemblance to the planet found in the solar system.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has observed a distant planet outside our solar system, and unlike any other, revealing what is likely to be a highly reflective world with a humid atmosphere.
It’s the closest view yet of this mysterious world, a “mini-Neptune” that was largely impenetrable to previous observations. And while the planet, called GJ 1214 b, is too hot to support oceans of liquid water, water vapor could still be a significant part of its atmosphere.
” The planet is completely covered by some type of haze or cloud cover,” said Eliza Kempton, a researcher at the University of Maryland and lead author of a new paper published in the journal Nature on the planet.
“The atmosphere just remained totally hidden from us until this observation.” He pointed out that if it is indeed water-rich, the planet could have been a “water world,” with large amounts of watery and icy materials at the time of its formation.
The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a planet dubbed “mini-Neptune”
The research team opted for an innovative strategy to traverse such a dense barrier: in addition to carrying out conventional observation – capturing the light from the host star that has passed through the planet’s atmosphere – they followed GJ 1214 b virtually throughout its orbit around the star.
This observation highlights the power of the James Webb Space Telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which detects wavelengths of light outside the range visible to human eyes. Using MIRI, the research team was able to create a kind of “heat map” of the planet as it orbited the star.
The heat map revealed, just before the planet’s orbit took it behind the star, and when it emerged on the other side, both its day and night sides, revealing details of the composition of the atmosphere of this “mini-Neptune.” “ which resembles that of our solar system.
According to Kempton, this significant variation in the planet’s atmosphere is only possible if it is composed of heavier molecules such as water or methane, both of which appear similar when observed through MIRI.
Therefore, it is unlikely that the composition of GJ 1214 b’s atmosphere is composed mainly of lighter hydrogen molecules. This could be a crucial clue to the planet’s history and formation, including its possible origins as a water-rich world.