Cornell Astronomers Reveal Chemistry of Exoplanet Atmospheres, James Webb Telescope 

Cornell astronomers Jake Turner grad, Yu-Cian Hong grad and Research Associate Laura Flagg published a paper on Jan. 9 revealing a broad-wavelength atmospheric transmission spectrum of gas giant exoplanet WASP-39b. The paper also revealed the James Webb Space Telescope’s sensitivity to a diversity of exoplanet compositions and chemistry — meaning astronomers can now detect active chemical processes happening in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. 

JWST conducts infrared astronomy through high-resolution and high-sensitivity instruments, which capture and relay data to be interpreted via mediums such as the transmission spectrum, a graph of a planet’s apparent change in size as a function of wavelength of light from the host star. Transmission spectrums can provide information on gaseous particles, haze and clouds in atmospheres of exoplanets, which are planets that orbit outside of the solar system. 

“We’ve been asking questions about exoplanet atmospheres for a long time and JWST is now the best tool we have to answer them,” Turner, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Sciences, said. WASP-39b’s wide radius, low surface gravity and relatively clear skies make its atmosphere ideal for analysis.