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|| James Webb Discovers Methane and Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere of Exoplanet K2-18B: 120 Light-Years From the Earth in the Constellation Leo ||



|| Tuesday: September 12: 2023 || ά. A new investigation by an international team of astronomers, using data from the James Webb Space Telescope, into K2-18 b, an exoplanet 08.6 times as massive as Earth, has showed the presence of carbon-bearing molecules, including methane and carbon dioxide. The discovery adds to recent studies, suggesting that K2-18 b could be a Hycean exoplanet in a habitable zone, one which has the potential to possess a hydrogen-rich atmosphere and a water ocean-covered surface. The Habitable Zone is the region around a star where the conditions could, potentially, be suitable to sustain life on a planet within this region, for example, allowing the presence of liquid water on its surface.

The first insight into the atmospheric properties of this habitable-zone exoplanet  came from observations with the Hubble Space Telescope, which prompted further studies, that have since changed our understanding of the system. New observations were made with the Canadian-contributed NIRISS and European-contributed NIRSpec instrument aboard the James Webb Space Telescope. K2-18 b orbits the cool dwarf star K2-18 in the habitable zone and lies 120 light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo.

Exoplanets, such as, K2-18 b, which have sizes between those of Earth and Neptune, are unlike anything in our Solar System. This lack of analogous nearby planets means that these ‘Sub-neptunes’ are poorly understood and the nature of their atmospheres is a matter of active debate among astronomers. The suggestion that the Sub-neptune K2-18 b could be a Hycean exoplanet is intriguing, as some astronomers believe that these worlds are promising environments to search for evidence for life on exoplanets.

“Our findings underscore the importance of considering diverse habitable environments in the search for life elsewhere.” Said Nikku Madhusudhan, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge and the Lead Author of the paper, announcing these results. “Traditionally, the search for life on exoplanets has focused, primarily, on smaller rocky planets but, the larger Hycean worlds are, significantly, more conducive to atmospheric observations.”

The abundance of methane and carbon dioxide and shortage of ammonia, support the hypothesis that there may be an ocean underneath a hydrogen-rich atmosphere on K2-18 b. These initial Webb observations, also, provided a possible detection of a dimethyl sulphide:DMS molecule. On Earth, this is only produced by life. The bulk of the DMS in Earth’s atmosphere is emitted from phytoplankton in marine environments.

The inference of DMS is less robust and requires further validation. “Up-coming Webb observations should be able to confirm, if, DMS is indeed present in the atmosphere of K2-18 b at significant levels.” Said Madhusudhan.

While K2-18 b lies in the habitable zone and is now known to harbour carbon-bearing molecules, this does not necessarily mean that the planet can support life. The planet's large size, with a radius 02.6 times the radius of Earth, means that the planet’s interior likely contains a large mantle of high-pressure ice, like Neptune but, with a thinner hydrogen-rich atmosphere and an ocean surface. Hycean worlds are predicted to have oceans of water. However, it is, also, possible that the ocean is too hot to be habitable or be liquid.

“Although, this kind of planet does not exist in our solar system, Sub-neptunes are the most common type of planet known so far in the galaxy.” Said a research team member Subhajit Sarkar of Cardiff University. “We have obtained the most detailed spectrum of a habitable-zone Sub-neptune to date and this allowed us to work out the molecules, that exist in its atmosphere.”

Characterising the atmospheres of exoplanets like K2-18 b, meaning identifying their gases and physical conditions, is a very active area in astronomy. However, these planets are outshone, literally, by the glare of their much larger parent stars, which makes exploring exoplanet atmospheres, particularly, challenging.

The researchers sidestepped this challenge by analysing light from K2-18 b's parent star as it passed through the exoplanet's atmosphere. K2-18 b is a transiting exoplanet, meaning that we can detect a drop in brightness as it passes across the face of its host star. This is how the exoplanet was first discovered. This means that during transits a tiny fraction of starlight will pass through the exoplanet's atmosphere before reaching telescopes like Webb. The starlight's passage through the exoplanet atmosphere leaves traces, that astronomers can piece together to determine the gases of the exoplanet's atmosphere.

“This result was only possible because of the extended wavelength range and unprecedented sensitivity of Webb, which enabled robust detection of spectral features with just two transits.” Said Madhusudhan. “For comparison, one transit observation with Webb provided comparable precision to eight observations with Hubble conducted over a few years and in a relatively narrow wavelength range.”

“These results are the product of just two observations of K2-18 b, with many more on the way.” Sai another research team member, Savvas Constantinou of the University of Cambridge. “This means our work here is but an early demonstration of what Webb can observe in habitable-zone exoplanets.”

The researchers now intends to conduct follow-up research with the telescope's Mid-InfraRed Instrument:MIRI spectrograph that they hope will further validate their findings and provide new insights into the environmental conditions on K2-18 b.

“Our ultimate goal is the identification of life on a habitable exoplanet, which would transform our understanding of our place in the Universe." Said Madhusudhan. "Our findings are a promising step towards a deeper understanding of Hycean worlds in this quest.”

The Paper has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Caption: Illustration of Exoplanet K2-18 b: Image: NASA:ESA:CSA :::ω:::

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|| New Webb Image Captures Detailed Beauty of Ring Nebula 2,500 Light-Years Away From Earth ||



|| Sunday: September 03: 2023 || ά. The Ring Nebula is one of the most notable objects in our skies. It was discovered in 1779 by astronomers Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix and Charles Messier, and was added to the Messier Catalogue. Both astronomers stumbled upon the nebula when trying to follow the path of a comet through the constellation of Lyra, passing very close to the Ring Nebula.

Formed by a star throwing off its outer layers as it runs out of fuel, the Ring Nebula is an archetypal planetary nebula and is, relatively, close to Earth at roughly 2,500 light-years away, making it an important object for scientists. The NASA:ESA:CSA James Webb Space Telescope has released a new image of the well-known Ring Nebula with unprecedented detail. The new images show intricate details of structures and features, allowing scientists to understand both their chemistry and how they formed.

The observations were released last week by an international team of scientists, that includes Maynooth University’s Experimental Physics Lecturer Dr Patrick Kavanagh. Dr Kavanagh led the data reduction and processing of the image, taken by a Mid-Infrared Instrument:MIRI, a camera and a spectrograph, that sees light in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, with wavelengths that are longer than our eyes see.       

Commenting on the images, Dr Patrick Kavanagh said, “There has never been mid-infrared images of the Ring Nebula like this before. The exquisite detail reveals previously unknown features in the molecular halo, that tell us this dying star’s nebula was likely shaped by an unseen companion star. There simply has not been a telescope capable of seeing these features until JWST.”

The new images provide unprecedented spatial resolution, that show the intricate details of the filament structure of the inner ring, left, taken by NIRCam, Near-InfraRed Camera, and the concentric features of the outer regions of the nebulae’s ring, right, taken by MIRI, Mid-InfraRed Instrument. For context, it is the equivalent of distinguishing the details of a soccer ball at a distance of 550km.

The images, also, provide insight on what the structures comprise and how they evolved. The images show some 20,000 dense globules in the nebula, which are rich in molecular hydrogen. In contrast, the inner region shows very hot gas. The main shell contains a thin ring of enhanced emission from carbon-based molecules, known as, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons:PAHs.

Approximately, ten concentric arcs are located just beyond the outer edge of the main ring. The arcs are thought to originate from the interaction of the central star with a low-mass companion orbiting at a distance comparable to that between the Earth and the dwarf planet Pluto. In this way, nebulae like the Ring Nebula reveal a kind of astronomical archaeology, as astronomers study the nebula to learn about the star, that created it.

The colourful main ring is composed of gas thrown off by a dying star at the centre of the nebula. This star is on its way to becoming a white dwarf, a very small, dense and hot body, that is the final evolutionary stage for a star like the Sun.

These observations were completed as part of the James Webb Space Telescope observing programme GO1558. Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency:CSA.

The full paper, JWST observations of the Ring Nebula:NGC 6720: I. Imaging of the rings, globules, and arcs, will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, is available to read here.:::ω:::

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