Astronomers have used the James Webb Space Telescope to study the exoplanet GJ 1214b, located about 40 light-years away.
GJ 1214b is a mini-Neptune, resembling a shrunken gas giant. While mini-Neptunes are common in our galaxy, they have remained a curiosity because our solar system lacks a similar planet.
Previous observations were hindered by thick cloud layers, but the JWST’s infrared capabilities allowed astronomers to see through the haze.
The findings, published in Nature, indicate that GJ 1214b has a steam-based atmosphere, suggesting it may have been a “water world” in the past.
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By using the JWST’s Mid-Infrared Instrument, scientists mapped the planet’s temperature variations as it orbited, providing insights into its composition.
GJ 1214b experiences significant temperature shifts, reaching up to 535 degrees Fahrenheit (280 degrees Celsius) during the day and cooling by over 100 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
This large temperature swing suggests that the planet’s atmosphere is not solely composed of light hydrogen molecules, indicating the presence of substances like water or methane.
The disparity between the planet’s atmosphere and its host star’s composition offers clues about its history.
GJ 1214b may have either lost a substantial amount of hydrogen if it initially had a hydrogen-rich atmosphere, or it could have formed from heavier elements, such as water-rich material.
While much remains unknown about GJ 1214b, astronomers plan to observe more mini-Neptunes using the JWST in the future.
Their goal is to establish a coherent understanding of how mini-Neptunes form and determine why this particular planet contains such a significant amount of water.
Source Live Science