On March 1, 2018, NASA announced that it had detected large amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere of WASP-39b. The exoplanet is a fascinating one. It’s located in the constellation Virgo, and orbits its star (WASP-39) at an interval of once every four days. It’s 20 times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun, and is tidally locked which means that the same side of the planet is always facing its star. On its day side, the temperature rages at 1,430 deg Fah (776.7 Cels)
Strong winds carry the heat around the planet, keeping the permanently night side of WASP-39b nearly as hot.

Using the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, astronomers were able to note the uniqueness of WASP-39b. Though they predicted they would find water, they were surprised by the abundance, which suggests a fascinating history involving a migration through the planetary system, possibly destroying other planetary objects in its way. Researchers believe that WASP-39b can provide additional information regarding the formation of planets around a star.

Though it’s called “hot Saturn” due to its similar mass, the planet does not bear any rings, instead having a puffy atmosphere without any high altitude clouds which allowed lead investigator Hannah Wakeford and her team to achieve an accurate reading. “This  spectrum is thus far the most beautiful example we have of what a clear exoplanet atmosphere looks like,” Wakeford has said. Using modern technology with the help of some powerful space telescopes, the team was able to record the most complete spectrum of an exoplanet’s atmosphere that is currently possible.

Star: WASP 39
Constellation: Virgo
Distance From Earth: 700 Light-years
Age: N/A
Habitable Zone: Yes

Planet Type: Gas Giant

Mass: 0.28 Jupiters
Planet Radius: 1.27 x Jupiter
Temperature: 750 C

Discovery: 2011
Discoverer: WASP Project


Discovery Method: Transit
Site: Roque de los Muchachos Observatory
Status: Confirmed

Credits: Artist’s Concept: NASA, ESA, G. Bacon and A. Feild (STScI), and H. Wakeford (STScI/Univ. of Exeter)

On the horizon, Wakeford hopes to utilize the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), set to launch in 2019, to get an even better, more complete spectrum and analysis of WASP-39b. Additionally, JWST will have the capacity to record the planet’s atmospheric carbon, which absorbs light at longer, infrared wavelengths than its predecessor Hubble. An understanding of the amount of carbon and oxygen in the atmosphere can lead scientists to learn even more about where and how this particular planet of mysterious origin formed.