Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Beyond the known universe: A study in exoplanets with UTSA professor Thayne Currie

Beyond the known universe: A study in exoplanets with UTSA professor Thayne Currie

SEPTEMBER 20, 2022 — The universe continues to unfold and Thayne Currie, UTSA associate professor of astrophysics, is thrilled with the first-ever images of distant worlds seen by the James Webb Science Telescope (JWST).

As a member of the JWST Early Release Science Program in Exoplanet Direct Imaging, Currie is among a handful of professors in the UTSA College of Sciences’ Department of Physics and Astronomy who are taking part in unveiling the galactic discoveries realized by the JWST.

JWST recently captured the exoplanet, called HIP 65426 b, through several different light filters. An exoplanet—also called an extrasolar planet—is a planet outside a solar system that orbits another star.


“I’m excited that we can bring the opportunity to study exoplanets using NASA telescopes like the Webb into the classroom for students to discover the universe.”


The James Webb Space Telescope recently captured the exoplanet HIP 65426 b through several different light filters.


Over 5,000 exoplanets have now been discovered. Exoplanets have a wide range of properties from massive gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn, ice giants like Neptune, and terrestrial planets primarily comprised of silicates or metals.    

Like Jupiter, the JWST-imaged exoplanet HIP 65426 b is a gas giant planet. However, it is about seven times more massive than Jupiter, almost 50% larger in radius, and orbits 18 times further from its star than Jupiter orbits from the Sun. While planets within the solar system are about 4.5 billion years old, HIP 65426 b is likely a newly formed planet aged around 10 to 20 million years old.

Observing an exoplanet in a range of various wavelengths, Currie explained, sheds light on information about its composition and provides better insights on the formation and evolution of planets within our solar system.

“For thousands of years, we only knew about planets in our own solar system. In the last 30 years, we have discovered planets around other stars; about 20 have been imaged,” Currie said. “This recent image is captured using mid-infrared wavelengths that give us better clues about its luminosity, temperature and other atmospheric properties.”


EXPLORE FURTHER
Learn more about Currie’s research.

This image provided by NASA shows the different types of exoplanet types that are known to exist.


The JWST launched last year on Christmas Day aboard a rocket in French Guinea. The telescope is the largest and most powerful space science telescope in (and out of) the world, efficiently producing images of space with the sharpest details. When it was being designed 25 years ago, none of the exoplanets that are known today had been discovered yet. Now, scientists are able to study atmospheric compositions in depth, discovering properties like water vapor.

In the future, Currie hopes to use the JWST to reveal images of exoplanets more like those in our solar system and potentially habitable worlds.

“The direct-imaging capabilities of the Webb Telescope may be even more powerful than we anticipated, allowing us to study planets at wavelengths where it is difficult to image them from the ground,” Currie said. “I’m excited that we can bring the opportunity to study exoplanets using NASA telescopes like the Webb into the classroom for students to discover the universe.”

Ari Castañeda



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