Professor Joshua Lothringer, who was part of an international planetary exploration team, helped discover the exoplanet using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, according to a press release from the university. The team reportedly named the exoplanet Hot Jupiter WASP-39b.
The team said they focused the telescope on a distant star and measured light over time, watching it dim. If a star periodically dims, it can mean there is an exoplanet orbiting the star, casting a shadow, according to the press release.
According to the press release, the natural human eye cannot see an exoplanet through a telescope alone, because the star’s light is too bright. However, scientists can reportedly detect them by tracking the changes in the light spectrum coming from the exoplanet using infrared cameras, similar to how night goggles work. Night goggles use thermal imaging to capture infrared light, making it possible to see what is happening in the dark.
Lothringer said it took months to assemble and sort the data, using complex computer programs and algorithms to document the light spectrum. He called the process “painstaking,” saying the wavelengths of light are measured between 3 and 5.5 microns — the data has to be exact.
“When all was said and done, it was thrilling to know that we have this ability and that we are contributing to a science that will hopefully someday lead us to habitable planets,” Lothringer said.
Lothringer’s research has been published in NASA’s Early Release Science program website: “NASA’s Webb Detects Carbon Dioxide in Exoplanet Atmosphere,” and in Nature: “Identification of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet atmosphere,” a weekly international journal that publishes peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology.
In addition to carbon dioxide, the other scientists on Lothringer’s team reportedly found water vapor, sodium, and potassium in the atmosphere. This information is critical in space exploration, according to the press release, because it builds a foundation that can be used to search smaller, terrestrial-sized planets for signs of life.