Celestial Tour: Exoplanets

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We don't expect life--at least the kind we're familiar with--to exist on gaseous, surfaceless planets. Webb, however, will be able to study the atmospheres of smaller planets--perhaps even super-Earths with land or oceans where life could flourish.

Hubble Anniversary (20th & 25th)
Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning partners: Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Sonoma State University
All images, illustrations, and videos courtesy of NASA, ESA, and STScI except:
  • Ground-based image of Carina Nebula © R. Gendler, J.-E. Ovaldsen, C. Feron, and C. Thone
  • Twinkling star movie courtesy of Applied Optics Group (Imperial College), William Herschel Telescope
  • Gran Telescopio Canarias photo courtesy of Victor R. Ruiz
  • M51 image from Gran Telescopio Canarias courtesy of IAC/GTC
  • Taurus constellation drawing from Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia by Johannes Hevelius, courtesy of the United States Naval Observatory
  • Written by Vanessa Thomas and John Stoke
  • Designed by Marc Lussier and John Godfrey 
  • Music courtesy of Associated Production Music

A nebula in space, a cluster of dense clouds in shades of red, purple, and yellow, speckled with bright stars. Text, In the 1990's the Hubble Space Telescope peered deep into the stellar factory we call the Orion Nebula.
Small dark disc shaped objects appear in circles. Text, There it found disks of dust and gas swirling around many young stars. These disks are the birthplace of planets.
Hubble cannot gaze into the disks to see planets forming within though. An animation of a Disk, a bright center surrounded by a ring of dark clouds.
Text, Thick dust blocks the view.
However, with its ddust penetrating infrared vision, Nasa's James Webb Space Telescope can look deeper inside these disks. Animation of the disk's reddish clouds spinning around the central bright point.
Text, Webb can study the chemical compositions of the disks.
It will compare young and old disks to see how they change with time.
Text, Webb will find out how the composition of those disks compares with molecules in our own solar system.
A line of pale clouds creating a horizon against a backdrop of black space filled with stars, a bright glowing white light on the edge. A small dark sphere grows larger as it approaches.
Text, It might even be able to see planets forming within the disks.
In infrared light, planets are easier to find since stars appear dimmer and planets appear brighter. An illustration of a grayish blue planet next to a massive bright yellow star. Text, Visible view, illustration. The planet turns bright orange and the star becomes dimmer blue. Text, Infrared view, illustration.
A Hubble image of glowing orange specks in a deep blue background. Text, Only a few planets have been spotted in infrared light. These were uncovered in archived Hubble observations after being discovered by ground-based telescopes.
Only after their host star's light had been removed could the planets be seen. A bright splash over the specks of planets appears, leaving them less visible. Text, Hubble Infrared Image with Starlight. The splash disappears, revealing the planets again. Text, Hubble Infrared Image without Starlight.
Text, Using this same technique, Webb can discover and study more planets orbiting other stars. An illustration of the James Webb telescope, its hexagonal gold plates mounted upright on a long metal craft with long arms extending from the plate's edges forming a point in front of it.
The hazy surface of a reddish planet. Text, In 2000, Hubble became the first telescope to detect the atmosphere of an exoplanet.
When the Jupiter-like planet traveled in front of its star from our point of view, some of the starlight filtered through the planet's atmosphere. A small round planet passes in front of a blazing star.
Text, When that filtered light reached Hubble, it was imprinted with the chemical composition of the planet's atmosphere. An illustration of light passing from the planet through a prism and into a band of rainbow visible light with two stripes missing in the yellow area. Below the band of colors, a graph showing deep grooves where the stripes in the light band are.
Animated water, carbon dioxide, and methane molecules spin over a jagged line graph of the spectrum of the planet's atmosphere. Text, In the atmospheres of this and other Jupiter-like planets, Hubble has found such things as water vapor, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and methane. These are some of the atmospheric ingredients we seek when searching for life on other worlds.
But we don't expect life -- at least the kind we're familiar with -- to exist on those gaseous surfaceless planets.
Webb can study the atmospheres of smaller planets -- perhaps even rocky planets with land or oceans where life could flourish. An animated small planet floats in the blackness of space against a blanket of stars. It rotates around a red star.
Text, One day, Webb could become the first telescope to identify hints of life on a planet much like our own.
Webb can study the atmospheres of smaller rocky planets that are similar to Earth's size.
Webb could detect molecules like water and methane on these distant worlds, gathering evidence to help us identify those with conditions that may be suitable for life.