Space telescope spies conditions on far-off planet

Edinburgh scientists have helped reveal the harsh, turbulent conditions on a distant world, using the world’s most powerful space telescope.

Artist's impression of the James Webb Space Telescope

Temperatures on the planet – known as VHS 1256 b – are around 830 degrees Celsius, and the atmosphere is dominated by a swirling storm of dust-like particles, researchers say.

Their analysis of the distant world – which is 40 light-years away – also detected methane, carbon monoxide and water on its surface, as well as evidence of carbon dioxide.

This is the largest number of molecules ever identified at once on a planet outside our solar system, the team says.

Space telescope

The discoveries were made using the James Webb Space Telescope. The £10bn instrument is the most powerful space telescope ever constructed.

Professor Beth Biller from the School of Physics and Astronomy was part of the research team, which also involved scientists from the Universities of Arizona, Exeter and UC Santa Cruz.

Giant planet

The planet – first detected in 2015 – is around 12 to 18 times the size of Jupiter, and it orbits not one, but two suns over a 10,000-year period.

During its 22-hour day, the planet’s clouds of large and small grains of silicate – a compound of silicon and oxygen – are constantly mixing and moving, causing temperatures to rise and fall.

The findings suggest VHS 1256 b is only around 150 million years old, which is why its atmosphere is so turbulent, the team says.

Professor Biller says the finer silicate grains in the planet’s atmosphere may be like the tiny particles in smoke, while the larger ones might be more like very hot, very small sand particles. 

This is an exciting finding because it illustrates how different clouds on another planet can be from the water vapour clouds we are familiar with on Earth. These silicate clouds are like a perpetual, very fine-grained but very hot sandstorm in the atmosphere. Directly observing them answers some longstanding questions in astronomical research and is a significant step on our journey to understand planetary-mass objects such as this.

Professor Beth BillerSchool of Physics and Astronomy

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. It was funded by NASA, European Research Council, Heising-Simons Foundation and the French National Research Agency.

Related links

School of Physics and Astronomy

Journal paper

Image credit: NASA, GSF, CCIL and Adriana Manrique Gutierre