University of Leicester astronomers help James Webb Space Telescope glean new insights from distant world

A NASA-coordinated study has today revealed the early origins of a planet 700 light years away
Astronomers from the University of Leicester contributed to research that used the famous James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to investigate the atmosphere of distant planet WASP-39b, re-mapping its history and migration through space
New method determines the distant planet’s carbon-oxygen ratio

Observations from the James Webb Space Telescope have re-mapped the history of a distant planet with the assistance of astronomy expertise from the University of Leicester.

WASP-39b is an exoplanet (a planet outside of our solar system), 700 light years away from Earth. Made of gas, extremely hot, and orbiting a Sun-like star, it has fascinated scientists since its discovery a decade ago and is similar to Saturn in mass and to Jupiter in size. 

Today, a study involving the University of Leicester and led by the University of Warwick that reveals the atmospheric make-up of WASP-39b has been published, helping to determine its origins. The research is part of a series of studies using data from the JWST, known as Early Release Science (ERS) Programmes, coordinated by NASA.

While WASP-39b is located too close to its star to be habitable for life, this research shows how similar techniques could be used on exoplanets where life could, or could have once, existed.

The study used spectroscopy (analysis of light split up into different wavelengths) to determine the exoplanet’s carbon-oxygen ratio, from which scientists could pinpoint the location where it was formed and its subsequent migration over time. JWST tracked the planet as it passed in front of its star, allowing some of the star’s light to filter through the planet’s atmosphere. Different types of chemicals in the atmosphere absorb light at unique wavelengths, so the wavelengths that are missing allow astronomers to work out which molecules are present.
Observations of WASP-39b were also made with the Next Generation Transit Survey (NGTS), in order to determine the level of activity for the planet to compare to measurements taken by JWST.

Beth Henderson, an STFC funded PhD student at the University of Leicester, was part of the NGTS team and used her new techniques to help determine the best way to minimise the sky background around the star. The work she undertook influenced the pipeline used, with her tests highlighting the importance of accurate background estimation when reducing data. Exoplanets produce such tiny dips in light when they move in front of their host star that making sure the sky background is removed corrects is incredibly important.

She said: “Being a part of NGTS has been a great experience, which has allowed me to be involved in supporting amazing discoveries such as this.”

The University of Leicester has had members of the transiting planet Early Release Science team for JWST since its inception. Leicester also provided the Mechanical Engineering Lead for the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on JWST, has been responsible for design and provision of the MIRI Primary Structure (in collaboration with the Danish National Space Centre), and provided support for MIRI test and calibration activities.

Dr Sarah Casewell of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester said: “WASP-39b was originally discovered as part of Superwasp, a project that involved the University of Leicester and it is fantastic that we have built on that legacy with observations using the Next Generation Transit Survey to support the JWST observations”. 

Lead author Eva-Maria Ahrer, PhD student from the University of Warwick, said: “Various models have been suggested as to how these gas giants have formed and moved inwards towards its host star during their lifetimes. The composition of a planet can tell us more about this. In the case of WASP-39b, the spectroscopy revealed a low amount of carbon relative to oxygen in the atmosphere, suggesting that the exoplanet was formed further away from its host star, since migrating much closer, to a position nearer to its star – now even closer than Mercury is to the Sun.

“While the carbon-oxygen ratio has been theorised as a way of investigating planet origins, the JWST presents the first opportunity to measure this, making our study the benchmark for further planetary research using this method.”

This JWST NIRCam observation of WASP-39b is one part of a larger investigation, coordinated by NASA, using several other methods and instruments to investigate the exoplanet.  The project was designed to provide the exoplanet research community with robust JWST data as soon as possible. The collaboration has recently demonstrated great success with an announcement of the first detection of carbon dioxide in the same exoplanet, published in Nature.