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Webb telescope to reveal new photo of exoplanet

AAt some point, things were destined to settle in the glass-enclosed mission control room at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. For much of this year, the Institute has been the center of the astronomical world. After all, that’s where every image captured by the new James Webb Space Telescope first arrives, including the dazzling batch received and released in July. But the actual work that the Institute’s team does, analyzing the scientific data embedded in the images, is somewhat quieter and less flashy.

Still this week as NASA reports, that silence was broken by a new analysis of one of the images from July. And, as TIME has just learned, Webb will stir up even more buzz soon with a much-anticipated photo release, the first of its kind from him. Together, the STScI team’s ongoing photographic analysis will tell us more than ever about solar systems beyond our own and the possibility of life there.

For starters, this week STScI researchers announced that Webb had taken a major step forward in their search for biological chemical fingerprints on distant exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars): the discovery of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a known planet. as WASP-39 b. It marks the first clear detection of CO2 in the atmosphere of any planet outside of the eight that orbit our own sun.

WASP-39 b is what astronomers unscientifically refer to as a bloated planet, with a diameter 1.3 times that of Jupiter, but only a quarter as massive. It also orbits so close to its parent star that its atmosphere reaches 900º C (1600º F). Despite the presence of organic chemistry, WASP-39 b is not the kind of place astronomers would expect to go looking for life. Even so, the presence of CO2 on the planet, combined with water vapor, sodium and potassium that the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes had already discovered there, is further proof that the universe is, among other things, a gigantic collection of organic chemistry, one in which the stuff of biology is found pretty much anywhere. That promises similar discoveries on rockier, temperate worlds, where life could take hold.

“Detecting such a clear signal of carbon dioxide in WASP-39 b bodes well for the detection of atmospheres on smaller Earth-sized planets,” said astronomer Natalie Batalha of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who leads the team that made the discovery, in a statement. With over 5,000 exoplanets Having been spotted across the galaxy, astronomers now believe that virtually every star in the universe is surrounded by at least one planet, and many, like our own sun, by an entire brood of them. That’s a lot of places for biology to take root.

In the meantime, expect more big news from Webb in the coming weeks, and a lot more buzz in STScI mission control. While astronomers have been able to study the atmosphere of exoplanets by analyzing changes in the wavelength of the light that streams through the planet’s air as it passes in front of its parent star, no one has captured an image of an exoplanet itself. That, NASA administrator Bill Nelson told TIME in a conversation last week, is about to change, thanks to Webb.

“Just a sneak peek,” he said, “the next picture you’ll get [from Webb] It’s from an exoplanet. I don’t know when they’re going to release it and I haven’t seen it yet. But… it’s just opening up a new understanding of the universe for us.”

This story originally appeared on TIME Space, our weekly newsletter covering all things space. You can sign up here.

More must-read stories from TIME


write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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