NASA's JWST discovers a reflective Mini-Neptune with a steamy atmosphere

A scientific team learns more about the atmosphere of a "Mini-Neptune," a form of planet that is abundant in the galaxy but nothing is known about it.
Kavita Verma
Webb Telescope reveals highly reflective, mysterious "Water World" outside our solar system
Webb Telescope reveals highly reflective, mysterious "Water World" outside our solar system

NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) 

Recently, the James Webb Space Telescope of NASA made the astonishing discovery of GJ 1214 b, a distant planet outside our solar system. The atmosphere of the Mini-Neptune is hot and unlike anything else in our solar system. The planet’s surface is extremely reflective and covered in a thick haze or cloud layer. According to the recently released report in Nature, prior planet observations were mainly fruitless.

The discovery highlights the capability of Webb's Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which can view light wavelengths beyond the range of the electromagnetic spectrum seen by human vision. As the planet circled the star, the study team was able to produce a sort of "heat map" of the planet. The heat map's daytime and nighttime sides were visible, revealing information about the atmosphere's makeup. The team tracked GJ 1214 b through nearly its entire cycle around the star and made the traditional observation of catching the host star's light that has filtered through the planet's atmosphere. This allowed them to break through such a dense barrier.

A Water-Rich Planet

The new study's lead author, University of Maryland researcher Eliza Kempton, claimed that the planet is completely covered in a haze or cloud layer. If the planet did have a lot of water, she pointed out; it might have formed a "water world" with a lot of cold and watery elements. Although the planet is too hot to support oceans with liquid water, its atmosphere may contain a significant amount of vaporized water.

“The planet is totally blanketed by some sort of haze or cloud layer,” said Eliza Kempton. She added, “The atmosphere just remained totally hidden from us until this observation.” 

The temperature fluctuates between 279 to 165 degrees Celsius (from 535 to 326 degrees Fahrenheit), showing that the atmosphere of GJ 1214 b does not primarily consist of lighter hydrogen molecules. Only an atmosphere composed of heavier molecules, like water or methane, which look identical when seen by MIRI, could produce such a significant shift. This knowledge may hold the key to understanding the planet's history, formation, and maybe watery beginning.

Implications of the Discovery

The new findings might make it possible to learn more about a sort of planet buried in mystery. In the galaxy, Mini-Neptunes, commonly referred to as sub-Neptunes, are the most prevalent kind of planet. But since they do not exist in our solar system, they remain a mystery to us. According to measurements, they resemble a smaller counterpart of our Neptune. Beyond that, not much is understood. Additional observations will be required to learn more about GJ 1214 b and the creative processes of the other planets in the Mini-Neptune class.

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