Exoplanets, Air, and the Marshmallow Planet

James Webb Space Telescope's NIRCam false-color image of Jupiter, Jupiter's rings and some of its satellites. (2022) from NASA/ESA/Jupiter Early Release Science team; Image processing: Ricardo Hueso (UPV/EHU), Judy Schmidt. Used w/o permission.
Jupiter, its rings and two moons: Amalthea and Adrastea. Image from JWST’s NIRCam.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) took that image of Jupiter, its rings and moons, a few months back. Aside from being, as one of my daughter’s noted, “shiny,” the picture gives scientists a new look at the Solar System’s largest planet’s cloud-tops.

It also gives them more data than they’d expected, which is mostly good news; but not entirely. I’ll get back to that.

…’We hadn’t really expected it to be this good, to be honest,’ said planetary astronomer Imke de Pater, professor emerita of the University of California, Berkeley. De Pater led the observations of Jupiter with Thierry Fouchet, a professor at the Paris Observatory, as part of an international collaboration for Webb’s Early Release Science program. Webb itself is an international mission led by NASA with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency). ‘It’s really remarkable that we can see details on Jupiter together with its rings, tiny satellites, and even galaxies in one image,’ she said….”
(“Webb’s Jupiter Images Showcase Auroras, Hazes,” Alise Fisher, James Webb Space Telescope, NASA Blogs (August 22, 2022))

I stayed slightly-focused this week, which is slightly surprising. Considering what’s been going on. I talk about that under And Now for Something Completely Different:

Update (December 10, 2022)
Still more analysis of data from JWST:

JWST and Infrared Light: Making the Invisible Visible

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Pat Izzo's photo: The Webb Telescope team posing with the full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope on the lawn at Goddard Space Flight Center, where it was displayed September 19-25, 2005. (September 2005) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
The Webb Telescope team and full scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope. (September 2005)

James Webb Space Telescope's NIRCam false-color image of Jupiter, Jupiter's rings and some of its satellites. (2022) from NASA/ESA/Jupiter Early Release Science team; Image processing: Ricardo Hueso (UPV/EHU), Judy Schmidt. Used w/o permission.Jupiter doesn’t really look like that, not to our eyes.

But it really is a picture of Jupiter: not a frozen pizza or sausage slice. I talked about a slice of choizo, a “top scientist” and consequences of posting during cocktail hour a few months back. (August 7, 2022)

Jupiter looks the way it does in that NIRCam picture because JWST used two of NIRCam’s 29 filters: F212N and F335M.

F212N lets infrared light from about 2.1 to 2.15 microns through to the imager.

F335N lets light from around 3.15 to 4 microns through.

Some folks say “microns,” some say “micrometers;” they both mean μm: 1×10-6 meter, and it’s a very short distance. But even so, infrared wavelengths are longer than those of light we see directly with our eyes.

Black body radiation curve, Astronomy Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.Richard Hueso of UPV/EHU, Judy Schmidt and the folks at NASA and ESA made the JWST Jupiter images visible by assigning data from the two filtered images to colors we can see.

They showed F212N data as orange and F335M as cyan.

Now, about those acronyms. UPV/EHU stands for University of the Basque Country, ESA is the European Space Agency and NASA is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

NIRCam isn’t quite an acronym. It’s the what folks call the JWST’s Near Infrared Camera. It sees wavelengths from 0.6 to 5 microns.1

HIP 65426 b: First Exoplanet Imaged by JWST

James Webb Space Telescope's NIRCam false-color image of exoplanet HIP 65426 b in different wavelengths of infrared light (2022) from NASA/ESA/CSA/A. Carter (UCSC)/ERS 1386 team/A. Pagan (STScI), used w o permission.
Exoplanet HIP 65426 b, in several infrared ‘colors. “☆” marks the star HIP 65426’s position.

The star HIP 65426 is very roughly twice as massive as our sun. It’s one and three-quarters times as large.

Putting it another way, HIP 65426 is a bit less massive but as big, as Sirius, and a bit cooler.

HIP 65426 is a main sequence A2 star, Sirius is a main sequence A0.

That’s Sirius A. Sirius B is a white dwarf star, with about our sun’s mass packed into a sphere about Earth’s size: 12,000 kilometers, 7,500 miles. Sirius is the brightest star in our night sky because it’s fairly close, 8.6 light-years.

HIP 65426 is about 356 light-years away, in the general neighborhood of Zeta and Xi2 Centauri, so we can’t see it without a telescope.

HIP 65426 b is about half again as big as Jupiter, with eight or nine times Jupiter’s mass. It’s very roughly as far from HIP 65426 as Eris is from our sun.

The JWST images up there were taken by NIRCam, I talked about that before; and MIRI. MIRI, Mid-Infrared Instrument, that sees wavelengths from five to 28 microns.

HIP 65426 b looks like three longish blobs in NIRCam images because of oddities in NIRCam’s system. The planet’s almost certainly roughly spherical.

Apart from that, it’s early days to say anything definite about HIP 65426 b, although we’ve known a little about it since 2017. JWST images and spectral analysis have given scientists a great deal more data. And that, in a way, is a problem.

What we do know is that HIP 65426 b doesn’t fit today’s models of how giant planets form. What we don’t know includes just what to make of JWST’s detailed spectra.2

WASP-69 b and “Exquisite Data” — in Huge Quantities

NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI's graphic, showing JWST spectra of WASP-96 b: a hot giant planet that shows signs of water vapor in its atmosphere. (2022) via Sky and Telescope, used w/o permission.
JWST spectra of WASP-96 b, showing water in the giant planet’s atmosphere.

“Good science takes time.

“That’s not a popular refrain in our 24-hours news cycle — especially when there’s a new space telescope returning crystal-clear views of the infrared universe nearly every day. But for astronomers drinking from the firehose that’s coming from the James Webb Space Telescope, time is exactly what they need.

“Webb’s Early Science Release program has been delivering exquisite data on a variety of celestial targets. Some of the most anticipated of these are the spectra of exoplanets. But a study in Nature Astronomy urges caution in interpreting these chemical fingerprints of alien worlds….”
(“Webb’s Exoplanet Data Are Almost Too Good,” Monica Young, Sky and Telescope (September 20, 2022))

We know that WASP-96 b’s atmosphere contains water, along with hydrogen, helium and a little sodium. What we don’t know is exactly how much of each substance is there.

WASP-96, WASP-69b’s sun, is a K5 main sequence star. It’s a little smaller and cooler than ours and a tad richer in heavy elements.

WASP-96 b has about as much mass as Saturn, but is just a little smaller than Jupiter. That’s very likely because it’s so close to its sun, completing an orbit in about 94 hours.

Scientists figure WASP-96 b is losing mass, but not fast: about half an Earth-mass every billion years. But so far, they haven’t spotted a comet-like tail streaming from the planet.3

WASP-39 b: a Hot Jupiter and/or Saturn

NASA, ESA, CSA, L. Hustak (STScI)'s illustration of the JWST Transiting Exoplanet Community Early Release Science Team's data: 'A series of light curves from Webb's Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) shows the change in brightness of three different wavelengths (colors) of light from the WASP-39 star system over time as the planet transited the star July 10, 2022'
Three light curves, showing change in brightness as WASP-39 b passes in front of its star.

WASP-39 is about 750 light years away, give or take. It’s a main sequence G8 yellow dwarf. Our sun is spectral class G2.

It’s in the general direction of Phi Virginis, but more than five times more distant. WASP-39, I mean, obviously. Our star is right next door.

I’ve seen WASP-39 b called a hot Jupiter and a hot Saturn. Both labels make sense, since the planet’s about as big as Jupiter and has roughly the same mass as Saturn.

But it’s hotter than either.

WASP-39 b is about 4,517,650 miles from its sun, compared to 43,317,410 miles for Mercury’s distance from our sun.

WASP-39 is a tad cooler than our star: 5,400 K to old Sol’s 5,770 K. That makes WASP-39 b hot, around 1100 K: or 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, 900 degrees Celsius.

“K” in this context is geek-speak for degrees Kelvin. That’s the International System of Units temperature unit, starting at absolute zero. K temperatures used to be related to the Celsius scale, where zero degrees is water’s freezing point. But since 2019, it’s been —

“…defined by fixing the Boltzmann constant k to be exactly 1.380649×10−23 J⋅K−1. Hence, one kelvin is equal to a change in the thermodynamic temperature T that results in a change of thermal energy kT by 1.380649×10−23 J….”
(Kelvin, Wikipedia)

— none of which makes much difference in my daily routines.

Fahrenheit, the temperature scale my country uses, defines zero degrees as the freezing point of brine made from water, ice, and ammonium chloride. Probably.

I gather that there are a few versions of how the Fahrenheit scale started.

At any rate, WASP-39 b is a hot gas giant, whipping around its star every about 98 hours or so, with water, carbon dioxide, sodium and sulfur dioxide in its atmosphere.4

Two ‘Firsts’ — Carbon Dioxide; and Sulfur Dioxide, Evidence of Photochemistry
NASA, ESA, CSA, L. Hustak (STScI)'s illustration of the JWST Transiting Exoplanet Community Early Release Science Team's data: 'A transmission spectrum of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-39 b captured by Webb's Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) ... reveals the first clear evidence for carbon dioxide in a planet outside the solar system. This is also the first detailed exoplanet transmission spectrum ever captured that covers wavelengths between 3 and 5.5 microns. (July 10, 2022)'
WASP-39 b: “first clear evidence for carbon dioxide in a planet outside the solar system.”

I’m running out of time, again, for reasons I’ll get back to: so instead of rehashing my source material, I’ll just slap down a few excerpts and move along.

“…Early Release Science Programs for Solar System Science
Early Release Science (ERS) programs were developed by STScI and the JWST Advisory Committee to showcase the capabilities of JWST and help familiarize the broader scientific community with the functionality and data products of the spacecraft’s instrument suite. These observations are scheduled to take place during the first five months of JWST science operations. The ERS programs have no proprietary period, ensuring timely dissemination and analysis of results….”
(“JWST — Solar System Science ,” Astrochemistry Laboratory/Code 691, JWSTSSS, Science and Exploration Directorate, NASA (Last Updated: November 30, 2022))

Basically, folks running the JWST and STScI (Space Telescope Science Institute) are trying something new. Fairly new, anyway.

Instead of hanging onto data for a while, only letting a few privileged individuals and groups see what’s new, JWST and STCcI have been releasing new observations as they come in from the JWST.

I think that’s a good idea, partly because my personal experiences haven’t encouraged admiration for ‘good old boy’ networks.

On the other hand, I haven’t learned just how many folks get early access. Looks like there is an “early release list” of sorts, probably limited to scientists who’ve demonstrated both interest and ability in analyzing this sort of data.

“…A group of exoplanet experts won a coveted spot on the early release list, and the five studies on WASP-39b are part of that effort. Astronomers had already observed WASP-39b with several ground- and space-based telescopes, and it was visible at the start of science operations, making it a perfect target for immediate observation.

“The studies focus on WASP-39b’s atmosphere. JWST observed this planet at near-infrared wavelengths using three instruments — one camera, one spectrograph, and one instrument that’s a combination of the two.

“The first study was released in August 2022, reporting carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere. The Spitzer Space Telescope had previously hinted at the gas’s presence, but JWST’s Near Infrared Spectrograph saw a much clearer signature, verifying the detection for the first time on an exoplanet.

“In other papers, the astronomers note sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere, which is evidence that radiation from the host star is interacting with the molecules in the atmosphere. This is the first time such photochemistry has been observed outside the solar system….”
(“Webb Telescope Surveys a Hot Saturn,” Arwen Rimmer, Sky and Telescope (December 2, 2022))

A couple more points.

Carbon dioxide in a planet’s atmosphere isn’t unheard of. But this is the first time it’s been detected in an exoplanet’s atmosphere.

And sulfur dioxide in WASP-39 b’s atmosphere very strongly suggests that photochemical reactions are happening there.5

Part of the trick now will be learning how much of each substance is in WASP-39 b’s atmosphere, and that’s another topic. One I’ll leave for another time.

TOI-3757 b: The Incredible Marshmallow Planet

Pixabay's photo of marshmallows, via Smithsonian Magazine Sarah Kuta's 'Puffy, Marshmallow-Like Planet Could Float in a Bathtub:' about exoplanet TOI-3757 b which has the same average density as a marshmallow. (October 25, 2022)

TOI-3757 b is a super-puff planet, with a mass not much more than Earth’s, but a radius greater than Neptune’s. What I take to be reliable numbers say its density is 0.27 grams per cubic centimeter.

That, I gather, is about as dense, on average, as a marshmallow.

I’m also not entirely sure that TOI 3757 b really is the least-dense exoplanet we’ve spotted.

Some sources gave its density in terms of grams per cubic feet, which struck me as at best an odd mix of measurement systems.

We’ve spotted other super-puff planets: WASP-17 b and Kepler-51 b, c, and d, for example.

Since I don’t have time this week to both find and conform numbers and ‘do the math,’ I’ll accept the assertion that TOI 3757 b is about as dense as a marshmallow. Which is pretty cool.

Or, more accurately, hot. Probably 759 K, if scientists’ calculations are right. That’s 486 Celsius, 906 Fahrenheit. That’s hot enough to melt either lead or zinc.

TOI-3757 b is around 580 or 590 light-years out, in the general direction of Delta Aurigae. It has roughly Saturn’s Mass, but is a little bigger than Jupiter. The planet’s year less than 82 hours long, putting it about 3,574,150 away from its sun.

NASA says its star, TOI-3757, is spectral class K. Which makes sense, since the surface temperature of class K stars is between 3,900 and 5,300 K. The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, Exoplanet.eu, says TOI-3757’s temperature is 3913 K.6

A Little Science

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center's illustration: light being absorbed by and transmitted through a planet's atmosphere. Used w/o permission.

I really will get back to why I’m scurrying this week.

But first, what scientists are doing when they look at data from the JWST. Well, part of what they’re doing.

Spectroscopy or spectroscopic analysis sounds very scientific and technical. And it is.

But it’s not all that different from what we do every day when we look at something and decide that it’s water, or concrete, or chocolate milk.

Different sorts of stuff reflect or absorb light differently. Chocolate milk, for example, reflects more low-frequency visible light than the higher frequencies. Not that we think of it that way. When we talk about it at all, we generally say ‘it’s brown.’

The same principles apply to studying light — visible, infrared or otherwise — from exoplanets, although spectroscopy involves numbers, where our built-in visual system seems to just work.

A Hubble press release included a pretty good description of what scientists and the JWST do when they’re learning what’s in distant atmospheres.

“…To determine what’s in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, astronomers watch the planet pass in front of its host star and look at which wavelengths of light are transmitted and which are partially absorbed….”
(“Hubble Traces Subtle Signals of Water on Hazy Worlds,” Rob Garner, Hubble, Goddard Spaceflight Center, NASA (December 3, 2013; Last Updated August 7, 2017))

Oddly enough, studying the spectra of light that’s been transmitted through a substance is called absorption spectroscopy, not transmission spectroscopy.7

And Now for Something Completely Different

My methylphenidate prescription, with one day left. (June 10, 2021)And now, finally, I’ll talk about why I’ve been scurrying this week.

Maybe “scurrying” isn’t the right word. Jittering, maybe? Distracted? Preoccupied? Never mind.

I’ve talked about what’s behind what’s been happening before.

So feel free to skip down to the inevitable links, take a walk, or do whatever.

First, the good news. Some of my health — physical and mental — issues are more manageable now than they would have been back in the ‘good old days.’ Some of my mental health issues involve physical health, and that’s yet another topic.

The point is that my ‘what’s wrong with me’ list is mildly extensive. Details vary over time and, I suspect, updates to the DSM, but items have included:

  • ADHD: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, inattentive type
  • ASD: Autism spectrum disorder
  • Cluster A personality disorder
  • GAD: Generalized anxiety disorder
  • PDD: Persistent depressive disorder
  • PTSD: Post traumatic stress disorder

The not-so-good news is that my disorders are real, and inconvenient. Putting it mildly. And, I nearly forgot, this week’s checkup’s followup includes another blood test next week.

I’m not looking forward to that, but realize that it’s a good idea.

Back to good news, this isn’t the 1960s. Treatments for ADHD, for example, are available.

But some of the treatments have a bit of not-so-good news as part of the package.

Doing What I Can

Left: W. Spoone's 'Spooner's Magic No. 7' 'I feel a fit o'them curst blue devil coming across me again.' Right: Vincent van Gogh's 'Sorrowing Old Man' (At Eternity's Gate) (1890)
Depression, as shown by Spooner and Van Gogh.

I’d prefer having problems that could be resolved with a nice chat, followed by deciding that everything will be just fine.

If it was that easy, I’d have been perfectly perfect in my teens.

It isn’t, I wasn’t, and I’m still not.

So, quite a few years back, after trying other alternatives, a psychiatrist suggested that I consider methylphenidate.8 It’s a central nervous system stimulant that can help folks like me deal with ADHD.

It’s also arguably over-prescribed, and definitely addictive.

I knew that once I started taking it, stopping would be unpleasant. At the time, I knew the risks and thought that the benefit/risk balance favored starting the medication.

I hadn’t realized how often I’d experience withdrawal as a result.

Methylphenidate, you see, is a controlled substance. Federal rules being what they are, I need a new authorization each moth for the next month’s supply.

Sometimes the authorization gets lost in the mangle. Sometimes, more recently, local pharmacies can’t get the medication. That’s been happening more often, apparently due to pandemic-related supply chain SNAFUs.

But I still think the benefit/risk balance is favorable. I like being able to use my brain without metaphorically fighting the machinery.

Dealing With the Occasional SNAFU

National Institutes of Health's illustration: regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress. (ca. 2018)This month, I hit the jackpot. The pharmacy tried requesting authorization four times before getting the paperwork.

And then they didn’t have methyphenidate in stock. Or any of many related medications. I don’t envy them.

When I realized that an authorization snarl was in progress, I put myself on half-doses. I’ve been taking only the ‘morning’ methylphenidate tablet this week.

That way, I could keep going until Monday before running out, and withdrawal would be somewhat less unpleasant.

Finally, good news. When I checked, Friday afternoon, on the pharmacy’s shipment status: they had received the medication I need. I’ll be picking it up shortly.

Okay. I’m back.

Cultural assumptions being what they are, I’d better explain why I’m not ‘trusting God.’ And/or not writhing in agony over my presumed guilt for not being perfectly healthy.

Basically, it’s because life is a ‘precious gift’ from God. So is health. Getting and staying healthy is a good idea. Within reason. Even taking painkillers is okay. Again, within reason. (Catechism, 1506-1510, 2279, 2288-2289, 2292)

Links, a mixed bag:

1 JWST and infrared astronomy:

2 Stars, planets and technology:

3 Studying a recently-discovered gas giant:

  • Wikipedia
  • Planet WASP-69 b
    The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, Exoplanet.eu
  • WASP-69 b
    NASA Exoplanet Catalog
  • Probing the atmosphere of WASP-69 b with low- and high-resolution transmission spectroscopy
    S. Khalafinejad, K. Molaverdikhani, J. Blecic, M. Mallonn, L. Nortmann, J. A. Caballero, H. Rahmati, A. Kaminski, S. Sadegi, E. Nagel, L. Carone, P. J. Amado, M. Azzaro, F. F. Bauer, N. Casasayas-Barris, S. Czesla, C. von Essen, L. Fossati, M. Güdel, Th. Henning, M. López-Puertas, M. Lendl, T. Lüftinger, D. Montes, M. Oshagh, E. Pallé, A. Quirrenbach, S. Reffert, A. Reiners, I. Ribas, S. Stock, F. Yan, M. R. Zapatero Osorio, M. Zechmeister6; article A142; Astronomy and Astrophysics; (Received April 27 2021; Accepted August 24, 2021; December 2021 issue) via EDP Sciences

4 Geek-speak, mostly:

5 Terminology, technology and a puffy planet:

6 Puffy planets and more:

7 Spectroscopy — colorful science:

8 Finally; what’s a “DSM,” and one of my medications:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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