NASA | GSFC | STScI | Webb Telescope | 2023 May 01
The most common stars in the universe are red dwarf stars, which means that rocky exoplanets are most likely to be found orbiting such a star. Red dwarf stars are cool, so a planet has to hug it in a tight orbit to stay warm enough to potentially host liquid water (meaning it lies in the habitable zone). Such stars are also active, particularly when they are young, releasing ultraviolet and X-ray radiation that could destroy planetary atmospheres. As a result, one important open question in astronomy is whether a rocky planet could maintain, or reestablish, an atmosphere in such a harsh environment.
- Artist’s concept of the rocky exoplanet GJ 486 b, which orbits a red dwarf star that is only 26 light-years away in the constellation Virgo. Recent observations of GJ 486 b transiting in front of its star found potential signs of an atmosphere, but the results are still inconclusive. ~ Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted & Leah Hustak (STScI)
To help answer that question, astronomers used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to study a rocky exoplanet known as GJ 486 b. It is too close to its star to be within the habitable zone, with a surface temperature of about 800 degrees Fahrenheit (430 degrees Celsius). And yet, their observations using Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) show hints of water vapor. If the water vapor is associated with the planet, that would indicate that it has an atmosphere despite its scorching temperature and close proximity to its star. Water vapor has been seen on gaseous exoplanets before, but to date no atmosphere has been definitely detected around a rocky exoplanet. However, the team cautions that the water vapor could be on the star itself – specifically, in cool starspots – and not from the planet at all. ...
Webb Finds Water Vapor, But From a Rocky Planet or Its Star?
ESA Webb | ESA Space Science | 2023 May 01
Water Vapor around a Rocky Exoplanet…or Maybe Not?
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab | 2023 May 01
High Tide or Rip-Tide on the Cosmic Shoreline? A Water-Rich Atmosphere or Stellar
Contamination for the Warm Super-Earth GJ 486b from JWST Observations ~ Sarah E. Moran et al