by Christine Pulliam, Laura Betz, NASA
When NASA's James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2021, one of its most anticipated contributions to astronomy will be the study of exoplanets—planets orbiting distant stars. Among the most pressing questions in exoplanet science is: Can a small, rocky exoplanet orbiting close to a red dwarf star hold onto an atmosphere?
In a series of four papers in the Astrophysical Journal, a team of astronomers proposes a new method of using Webb to determine whether a rocky exoplanet has an atmosphere. The technique, which involves measuring the planet's temperature as it passes behind its star and then comes back into view, is significantly faster than more traditional methods of atmospheric detection like transmission spectroscopy.
"We find that Webb could easily infer the presence or absence of an atmosphere around a dozen known rocky exoplanets with less than 10 hours of observing time per planet," said Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago, a co-author on three of the papers.