Exoplanet GJ 486 b is a mysterious and amazing world that is located at a distance of 26 light years from Earth. This planet is about 30% larger than Earth and three times as massive, making it rocky and with stronger gravity than our planet.
It orbits its parent star in 1.5 Earth days and is too close to its star to be in the habitable zone. The surface temperature is over 450 degrees Celsius, making it uninhabitable.
But observations from the James Webb Space Telescope show water vapor in the exoplanet’s atmosphere. This was an unexpected discovery, because water vapor can be both a consequence of the presence of an atmosphere on the planet, and the result of processes occurring on the host star itself.
A team of astronomers observed two passages of the planet across the disk of the star, each of which lasted about an hour. They then used three different methods to analyze the data, and they all gave similar results – “James Webb” sees water vapor.
But to establish that this is the atmosphere of the planet, and not a star spot, additional observations at shorter infrared wavelengths will be required.
Red dwarfs are the most common stars in the universe, and rocky exoplanets are likely to be found orbiting such stars. But the planet’s orbit must be close enough to the star that the water on it does not freeze.
Red dwarfs emit ultraviolet and X-ray radiation that can destroy a planet’s atmosphere. Therefore, one of the main questions in astronomy is whether a rocky planet can maintain or restore an atmosphere under such harsh conditions.
If the water vapor found on GJ 486 b is associated with the planet, it means it has an atmosphere despite the scorching heat. This is the first reliable detection of an atmosphere on a rocky exoplanet.
But even if this is a star spot, and not the atmosphere of the planet, it is still an interesting phenomenon that can help scientists better understand the processes occurring on red dwarfs and their planets.
GJ 486 b is just one of many exoplanets we haven’t explored yet. Each new discovery can help expand our knowledge of the universe and the possibilities for life on other worlds.
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