Our wildest extraterrestrial world is 70 light-years from Earth.
It weighs 20 Jupiter masses, melts metal, and orbits two stars for 10,000 years. Well, and a sandstorm ravages it.
The James Webb Space Telescope revealed churning clouds of silicate granules in VHS 1256 b’s atmosphere.
The Astrophysical Journal Letters will publish last year’s arXiv finding after peer review.
The researchers also detected various atmospheric components of VHS 1256 b. Methane, carbon monoxide, water, and carbon dioxide have been confirmed.
“No other telescope has found so many characteristics at once for a single object,” claims German scientist Paul Mollière. “The JWST’s spectrum shows several molecules that detail the planet’s dynamic cloud and weather systems.”
VHS 1256b is mysterious. Its mass falls between large planets and brown dwarfs, “failed stars” that can fuse deuterium in their cores, which has a lower fusion temperature and pressure than hydrogen.
They’re supposed to form differently. Brown dwarfs originate like stars by collapsing from a tight knot in a gas and dust cloud and sucking in additional material. Some stars, like brown dwarfs, stop expanding after deuterium fusion.
Yet, planets are assumed to arise from leftover material after a star forms, clumping together to create a planet. Such stuff is frequently near the star. VHS 1256 b’s large orbital separation from its two suns implies cloud collapse, but it’s not conclusive.
The cloud collapse concept can generate planets with a Jupiter-sized minimum mass. VHS 1256 b’s nature is uncertain since the deuterium-burning mass limit separates planets from brown dwarfs.
The enormous distance permitted such magnificent observations.
“VHS 1256 b is nearly four times further from its stars than Pluto is from our Sun, which makes it a perfect target for Webb,” explains University of Arizona astronomer Brittany Miles, who headed the multinational study team. “The planet’s light isn’t mingled with its stars.”
JWST observes infrared and near-infrared thermal radiation. VHS 1256 b is only 150 million years old and hot from formation. Sand clouds form in its 830°C atmosphere (1,526 degrees Fahrenheit).
Heat and low gravity cause its tumultuous skies. JWST scientists examined the spectrum in detail to identify components absorbing certain wavelengths.
They detected the object’s atmosphere’s gasses and the continually shifting clouds of sand, presumably enstatite, forsterite, or quartz.
The data was comprehensive enough to detect different grain sizes, from smoke particles to sand. When smaller particles ascend, these heavier grains fall back into the core, the researchers theorized.
This causes a huge shift in the world’s brightness during its 22-hour day, suggesting that silicate clouds may cause similar variations in brown dwarfs. The team believes the discoveries might be readily repeated for additional brown dwarfs, which could help us understand these unusual objects.
VHS 1256 b gave us something to munch on.
“We’ve separated silicates, but better understanding which grain sizes and shapes fit certain types of clouds will take a lot of extra effort,” explains Max Planck Institute for Astronomy astrophysicist Elisabeth Matthews.
This is the start of a large-scale modeling attempt to analyze JWST’s complicated data.