A new study has found that astronomers may be misinterpreting the James Webb Space Telescope’s measurements of the atmospheres of exoplanets.
The James Webb Space TelescopeThe most complex space observatory ever, captures stunning images of the most remote regions in Universe. It also takes Chemical composition measurements Of the interesting stars, galaxies and nebulae that you see. To interpret this data, scientists rely on complex models. But a new study by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), finds that these models are not accurate enough to capture the nuances of Webb’s observations.
Julian de Witt, associate professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT, and study co-leader said in the statement.
The models in question analyze the opacity of the material observed by Webb, which is a measurement of how much light passes through or is absorbed, and the wavelengths at which this occurs. Because each chemical element absorbs light differently, astronomers can reconstruct the chemical structures and ratios of these chemicals in great detail using these measurements.
Webb, although it was built to monitor the oldest stars And the galaxies In the universe, it has already proven its power in the study of planets orbiting stars in our galaxy Milky Way. The telescope discovered important particles such as water and Carbon Dioxide In some planetary atmospheres, but he also took A live image of a gas giant exoplanet.
Astronomers are excited about Webb’s ability to study exoplanets in such detail, because the chemical structures of the planets’ atmospheres they hope to find could provide hints about the possible existence of life in some of these distant worlds. But inaccurate readings of the data may mean that the insights obtained will be completely unreliable.
“Our translation process will prevent us from discovering important minute details, such as those that make the difference between a planet being habitable or not,” de Witt said.
The researchers came to the conclusion by testing several versions of current opacity models and feeding them artificial light spectra that mimic those obtained by the James Webb Space Telescope. They found that different versions of the model produced different values that showed the limits of accuracy, they said.
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In the statement, the researchers said that the models “would not be sensitive enough to know if the planet’s atmosphere temperature was 300 K. [80 degrees Fahrenheit/26 degrees Celsius] or 600 kelvin [620 degrees Fahrenheit/326 degrees Celsius], or whether a particular gas occupies 5% or 25% of the atmosphere. “
“This difference is important so that we can reliably constrain planet formation mechanisms and identify biosignatures,” Prajwal Niraula, an EAPS graduate student and co-author of the new research, said in the statement. “Currently, the model we use to decode the spectral information does not match the accuracy and quality of the data we have from the James Webb Telescope. We need to up our game and address the opacity problem.”
The researchers also suggested potential improvements such as performing more laboratory measurements to validate the light absorption behavior of different chemical compounds and improving theoretical calculations.
“There is a lot that can be done if we know exactly how light interacts with matter,” Niraula said. “We know that well enough about Earth conditions, but once we move into different types of atmosphere, things change, and that’s a lot of data, as the quality increases, we risk misinterpreting it.”
the study (Opens in a new tab) Published in Nature Astronomy on Thursday, September 15th.