The scientists at NASA have gas, and they couldn’t be happier about it. According to Science Alert, the James Webb Space Telescope recently detected methane in the atmosphere of WASP-80b an exoplanet half the size of Jupiter. While the discovery of methane in the atmosphere of a gas giant rules out the possibility of life, it’s still worth studying.
Methan On Exoplanets
Astronomers are constantly looking for biosignatures on other planets, and methane is always a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, while the existence of methane on an exoplanet—a planet that orbits a star other than the sun—is a good sign, it’s not definitive proof of life. That’s because methane is both biotic and abiotic.
Due to methane’s fragile nature—much like Gremlins, sunlight kills it—when a lot of it is found in a planetary atmosphere, Scientists start salivating. For methane to maintain a continuous presence in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, it needs to be constantly replenished. On Earth, this happens when cows and other cattle burp or expel gas through different orifices.
Similar To Uranus And Neptune
There are no farting cows on WASP-80b, however, because, as previously mentioned, the exoplanet is made of gas. Since science has yet to deliver us a bovine light enough to stand on gas, that means there has to be another cause for the methane in WASP-80b’s atmosphere. Astronomers are comparing the planets to Uranus and Neptune—two planets from our own solar system that also have abiotic methane in their atmospheres.
Why Temperature Is Important
A scientific paper titled Methane Throughout the Atmosphere of the Warm Exoplanet WASP-80b was recently published by a team led by Taylor Bell, a researcher at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute. Bell found that WASP-80b is a so-called “warm Jupiter” with a temperature around 1,025 Fahrenheit. This puts the exoplanet between hot Jupiters like HD 209458 b—the first transiting exoplanet discovered—and cold Jupiters like our Jupiter, which only gets as hot as 235 Fahrenheit.
The temperature of the exoplanet is important as it’s just another piece of the methane puzzle. There’s a severe lack of methane in the atmosphere of most exoplanets, meaning that anytime scientists discover a planet with it, they have to carefully study all aspects of the planet’s makeup. Every methane-producing exoplanet discovered by astronomers plays an important role in helping the scientific community develop atmospheric theory.
WASP-80b’s temperature, in particular, places it in “an interesting transitional regime where equilibrium chemistry models predict that there should be detectable CH4 and CO/CO2 features in the planet’s transmission and emission spectra…” according to the researchers who worked on the paper.
The Search For More Methane Exoplanets
If astronomers continue to detect methane in more exoplanet atmospheres, it could lead to a paradigm shift in the way they think about methane as a biosignature. “As we find methane and other gases in exoplanets, we will continue to expand our knowledge about how chemistry and physics work under conditions unlike what we have on Earth,” the authors of the paper wrote in a NASA blog post.
Utilizing The James Webb Telescope
The researchers went on to say that finding methane in more atmospheres outside the Milky Way will actually help them to better understand our own solar system.
The James Webb Space Telescope will continue to capture data on WASP-80b hoping to next capture examples of other gasses like carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide in the exoplanet’s atmosphere.