At some point, things would settle in the enclosed mission control area at Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). This Institute has been the centre of the astronomical community for much of 2018. It is where every image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope’s new James Webb Space Telescope arrives for the first time, even the stunning batch that was released in July. But the real work the Institute team does—analyzing the scientific data embedded in the pictures— is quieter, less flashy stuff.
NASA says that NASA’s new analysis of the July image broke up this quiet week. TIME just discovered that Webb is set to stir more excitement with an eagerly awaited first-of its-kind photo release. Together, the STScI team’s continued photo analysis will tell us more than ever about solar systems beyond our own—and the possibility that life could exist there.
To begin, this week STScI researchers announced that Webb had taken a big step in its search for biology’s chemical fingerprints on distant exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars): the discovery of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet known as WASP-39 b. It is the first detection of carbon dioxide in an atmosphere outside the orbits of our sun.
WASP-39b is what amateur astronomers unscientifically call a “puffy planet”. It has a diameter of 1.3 times Jupiter’s and a mass that is only one-quarter as large. It also orbits so close to its parent star that its atmosphere reaches a broiling 900º C (1,600º F). WASP-39b, despite the presence of organic chemicals, isn’t exactly where astronomers might expect to look for life. However, the discovery of CO2 and water vapour, as well as sodium, potassium, and water vapor on the planet is yet another proof of the existence of organic chemistry in the universe. This is because biology can be found almost anywhere. It is possible to make similar discoveries on more temperate, rockier planets.
“Detecting such a clear signal of carbon dioxide on WASP-39 b bodes well for the detection of atmospheres on smaller, terrestrial-sized planets,” said astronomer Natalie Batalha, of the University of California at Santa Cruz, who leads the team that made the discovery, in a statement. With more than 5,000 exoplanets having been spotted throughout the galaxy, astronomers now believe that virtually every star in the universe is circled by at least one planet—and many, like our own sun, by a whole litter of them. That’s a lot of places for biology to take hold.
Meantime, expect bigger news from Webb in the coming weeks—and a lot more hoopla descending on the STScI mission control. Although astronomers are able to analyze the variations in the wavelength of light that passes through planets as they pass in front of their parent stars, it is impossible for anyone to capture a photo of an actual exoplanet. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said to TIME last week that this is changing thanks to Webb.
“Just a sneak preview,” he said, “the next photo you’re going to get [from Webb]This is an exoplanet. I don’t know when they’re coming out with it and I haven’t seen it yet. But…it’s just opening up all new understanding of the universe to us.”
The original version of this story appeared in TIME Space. This weekly newsletter covers all things space. Register here.
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