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Cloudy Challenges to Exploring Exoplanet Atmospheres

18 Mar 2020, 16:00 UTC
Cloudy Challenges to Exploring Exoplanet Atmospheres
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One of our goals with the soon-to-launch James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is to better characterize the atmospheres of exoplanets. But will clouds get in the way of our chances?
The Hunt for Water
As a star’s light filters through a planet’s atmosphere on its way to Earth, the atmosphere absorbs certain wavelengths depending on its composition. [European Southern Observatory]When an exoplanet transits across the face of its host star, it presents us with a golden opportunity: with a sensitive enough telescope — like the upcoming JWST, scheduled to launch a year from now — we can explore the atmosphere of the planet as it filters the light from its host. Through this transmission spectroscopy, we can look for spectral features that indicate the presence of specific atoms and molecules in the planet’s atmospheric gas.
In the search for life beyond our solar system, surface liquid water is generally considered a necessary ingredient for a habitable world — so signatures of water vapor in planet atmospheres are a prime target for transmission spectroscopy. But any planet with abundant surface water is likely to have something else, too: clouds of liquid and ice condensing in its atmosphere.
A new study led ...

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