back to article JWST snaps first chemical profile of an exoplanet atmosphere

The James Webb Space Telescope keeps opening the world to new science. This time it's the first molecular and chemical profile of an exoplanet's atmosphere, complete with signs of active photochemical reactions.  As part of the full chemical profile of exoplanet Wasp 39b – where earlier this summer Webb found clear evidence of …

  1. Sceptic Tank Silver badge

    Ok, so let's get Carl Sagan Space Telescope up there and have a closer look. I'm more interested to see what those aliens wear and eat for breakfast than what I'm interested to know what they breathe. Should aliens be unlucky enough to measure the atmosphere over, say, Witbank they will think we are creatures that breathe coal dust and sulphur*.

    * This spellchecker is brain damaged: "sulpher" should be "superhero"????? Has Disney taken over Mozilla?

    1. xyz Silver badge

      No... El Reg is now American.

      1. Roj Blake Silver badge

        Sulfur is IUPAC's preferred way of spelling it and has been for decades.

        1. Elongated Muskrat Silver badge

          I'll spell it that way, when Americans learn to spell aluminium.

      2. MJB7

        El Reg may now be American, but that doesn't affect the spellchecker *in the user's browser*.

        1. Julz


          There really ought to be an irony icon.

  2. Norman Nescio Silver badge

    Great: We know what's in the atmosphere of a gas giant eight times closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun. So?

    Translation for grumpy old gits like me:

    Great: We know what's in the atmosphere of a gas giant one eighth as far from its star as Mercury is from the Sun. So?

    I get cognitive dissonance using 'times closer' as I tend to expect multiplying something to increase its magnitude - "two times something is twice as much", like apples. Obviously, if you multiply by something smaller than unity, the result is smaller, but that's a layer of mathematical sophistication applied over the basic concept. I just find the concept of 'two times smaller than a pie' meaning half of a pie just confusing. Perhaps I'm just not used to it.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Eat another half of a pie. It might help.

      1. Norman Nescio Silver badge


        If I eat two times half of a pie, does that mean I'm actually eating a quarter of a pie? And if do it often enough, does that mean I'm eating a vanishingly small amount of pie?

        My waistline thinks different.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Pie-eating

          It's the Banach-Tarski theorem of cakes. If you cut a piece of cake into smaller pieces each has no calories and so even if you then eat them all the total has no calories.

          1. Norman Nescio Silver badge

            Re: Pie-eating

            Actually, if it is the Banach-Tarski theorem, you can cut the pie into a finite number of small pieces disjoint subsets*, reassemble, and get two pies. Result!

            *The disjoint subsets each consist of an infinite number of disconnected points. Cutting the pie in the first case is 'a bit' involved.

            1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

              Re: Pie-eating

              OR, if you prefer a square pie to a round one (or vice versa) you can cut one up into a few* pieces and reassemble it in the other shape:


              *For "few" read "finite, but totally impracticable in reality," number of pieces.

              1. Irony Deficient

                Re: Pie-eating


                That article’s URL was rather misleading; I wouldn’t call a geometry problem from 1925 “ancient”.

                Still, given the requirement of dividing a pie into 10200 discrete pieces, liquefying a pie of one shape and pouring it into a dish of another shape would require far less labor.

                1. Richard 12 Silver badge

                  Re: Pie-eating

                  How you cut it into 10200 pieces is entirely up to you, but I suggest that merely liquefied pie is insufficient.

                  It may need to be a plasma.

                  1. Irony Deficient

                    Re: Pie-eating

                    For the purpose of eating the pie in my lifetime, liquefaction for me is an acceptable substitution for cutting it into 10200 pieces. Call me crazy, but pie plasma doesn’t have as much gustatory appeal to me.

                  2. Fred Daggy Silver badge

                    Re: Pie-eating

                    Probably want to blow on the plasmafied cake first. It might be a bit hot and burn the roof of your mouth.

                  3. Norman Nescio Silver badge

                    Re: Pie-eating

                    Given that Avogadro's number is about 6.022x1023, liquefaction of any reasonably-sized pie gives you about 175 orders of magnitude too few particles, and in fact a plasma of protons, neutrons and electrons made from the pie will be short of more than 100 orders of magnitude. Getting to free quarks might give you a couple more orders of magnitude, but you'll need a pretty hot oven and/or a pretty heavy pie.

                    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                      Re: Pie-eating

                      Can't we just place it on the target spot of the LHC?

                2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                  Re: Pie-eating

                  "That article’s URL was rather misleading; I wouldn’t call a geometry problem from 1925 “ancient”."

                  Well, it's nearly 100 years ago so old enough to be antique :-)

    2. TVU Silver badge

      Well, it's good to know this and that the JWST can be used to identify planetary atmospheric gases because at some stage it is quite possible that the JWST will come across an Earth-like planet in a star's habitable zone and that's when things will really start to get really interesting.

  3. Eclectic Man Silver badge

    Atmosphere for life

    I am always amazed at how so much dat can be gleaned from telescopes and views of planets crossing the line of sight to their host star. But I'll get really excited if molecular oxygen is discovered in an exoplanetary atmosphere, as I believe the only processes that generate free oxygen are life itself. Of course it took millions of years for the Earth's atmosphere to have free oxygen as much of the synthesis by cyanobacteria was immediately bound up in iron and other oxides. I'm not holding my breath, but I'll keep my fingers crossed (as it were) hoping JWST finds that oxygen signal somewhere.

    1. Tom 7

      Re: Atmosphere for life

      Life was around for 800 million years before oxygen started to be produced. I'd imagine its possible for life to evolve considerably without oxygen photosynthesis.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Atmosphere for life

        >Life was around for 800 million years before oxygen started to be produced. I

        If we cyanobacteria don't do something to cut back on oxygen emissions we will destroy the atmosphere. These new-fangled photo-synthesizers are producing too much toxic waste - they'll make the Earth uninhabitable in a few billion years

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Atmosphere for life ScienceShot: Animals That Live Without Oxygen Multicellular creatures have adapted to one of the ocean's harshest environments

  4. Spoobistle

    exacting precision

    > As light hits various elements, they reflect different wavelengths,

    No, as the light passes *through* the atmosphere, various elements and (mostly) molecules *absorb* different wavelengths.

    This creates a transmission spectrum as explained in the NASA article. The observations can only be made when the exoplanet is passing in front of the star. Reflection would require the exoplanet to be behind or lateral to the star, and isolating the planet's effect is impractical in that situation. I suppose fluorescence or phosphorescence might conceivably be usable but I don't know if JWST could do that.

    1. Elongated Muskrat Silver badge

      Re: exacting precision

      Technically, the former (in infrared wavelengths at least) is Raman spectroscopy, and the latter is transmission spectrography. There's no reason both can't be used together. True, occlusion is the only real way to determine if there is a planet there, but once you've determined tha, the variations in the Raman spectrum of the star/planet system as the planet orbits its parent's star, although small, could theoretically provide a diagnostic spectrum, and do it over a longer timescale than the short period when the planet is between the star and us (the observer), which could be a very short window of opportunity if the orbit is eccentric and not nicely aligned with us, or has a long period.

      If it's sensitive enough, and you can separate the useful information from the background noise (selectivity), Raman spectroscopy could be used to detect atmospheres on multiple orbiting planets, as they move in and out of the range of view (to see the reflected light, they would need to be behind, or perpendicular to the parent star compared to the observer). I don't know enough about the sensitivity and selectivity of the method to answer this myself, but I probably know people who do/can.

  5. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Great stuff

    JWST really is the gift that keeps on giving!

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Be careful

    They are not going to like us looking at them. Just saying...

    1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

      Re: Be careful

      They had better make representations to the US Supreme Court then, hadn't they?*. I mean, if they cannot be bothered to take an interest in local issues they have only themselves to blame.**


      ** (Locked fining cabinet, no stairs, beware of the Leopard, etc. HHGTTG, fit the first.)

  7. Auntie Dix

    Mission: Emissions Admissions

    "Great: We know what's in the atmosphere of a gas giant eight times closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun."

    If we can detect gasses at astronomical distances, why can't we identify with a spotlight and siren the one or more who dealt it in a cubicle cluster or cropdusted a conference room?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Mission: Emissions Admissions

      You can, with essentially the same type of detectors

      1. Auntie Dix

        Re: Mission: Emissions Admissions

        LOL...from the comments, "Christ, has he been eating diesel?"

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Mission: Emissions Admissions MetCam: Methane Optical Gas Imager

      If it's a pernicious problem, and you've got the funds, you could display the live image on the conference room screen.

      1. Auntie Dix

        Re: Mission: Emissions Admissions

        Very cool! Video:

        "...display the live image on the conference room screen."

        A useful overlay, especially, for any PowerPoint presentation!

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Seems we have given up

    on the search for terrestrial intelligence.

    1. John McCallum

      Re: Seems we have given up

      OH we gave up on that a long time ago we are now looking for the Extra-terrestrial variety.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm still waiting..

    Eventually the JWST will spot a device like itself in another galaxy, and that's when the real fun begins :).

  10. Gene Cash Silver badge

    What was the point of that unreadable graphic?

    It didn't even link to a readable version.

  11. Lordrobot

    Proof that Carbon emissions are good...

    Without blowing smoke out the tailpipe of your beater, you would have no damn OZONE! Zero carbon emissions will cause ZERO OZONE..

    "Greens Serving Mankind" is a cookbook!

    1. Elongated Muskrat Silver badge

      Re: Proof that Carbon emissions are good...

      Ground-level ozone is toxic and causes photochemical smog. The ozone layer is in the stratosphere, where it has to be to block incoming ultraviolet light.

      Ozone is also not produced by burning hydrocarbons, and ground-level sources actually tend to be caused by electrical emissions, as it takes quite a lot of energy to split oxygen to form (highly reactive) O3*.

      Your comment displays not only the basic inability to seek out and read the wiki page about ozone (I've not read it either, but I can pretty much guarantee these facts are on there), but also demonstrates that your tin-foil hat is badly fitted and some of the stupid is leaking out.

      *Hey mods, I know I changed my handle, but can I have my silver badge back, so I can use the <sub> tag again?

      1. Elongated Muskrat Silver badge

        Re: Proof that Carbon emissions are good...

        ...I should add that stratospheric ozone is not man-made, and is produced by UV-C radiation splitting oxygen molecules (O2) in the upper atmosphere to form two oxygen radicals (O.), and then the oxygen radicals that are produced reacting with further molecular oxygen to produce ozone. If we stopped producing ground-level ozone tomorrow, this would have no impact whatsoever on the upper atmosphere, because mixing of atmospheric layers is prevented by the tropopause. It would, however, reduce smog, health, and environmental impacts. Which would be a good thing for everyone, except possibly those who would profit from producing ground-level ozone.

  12. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    I've read a lot of SF...

    ...and I can't immediately think of a single story that envisaged telescope able to discern this level of information from such a distance :-)

    Many of have postulated all sorts of "scanning" devices to identify the planets and habitability of a star system when the starship gets there or working from data sent by a probe that travelled there but I don't think any SF author actually wrote about this level of telescopy. I'm probably wrong, and I'm excluding anything written in the last 10-20 years where this level of telescopy isn't actually fiction, but fact.

    This all excellent science, and it's especially nice when it out sciences the science fiction :-)

  13. Tom Paine


    JWST has indeed had several good hard stares at the exoplanets in the Trappist system. There's a Twitter* bot that just announces what it's observing.

    Edit - just had a look to check the ac name (@jwstObservations) and as it happens it's observing Trappist-1 as I type.

    * (presumably soon to migrate to Mastodon along with everyone else who feels queasy giving and and comfort to the new Nazi-friendly regime over there. I'm still lurking but no longer interacting or tweeting, fwiw.)

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