"Ever had hot sand whip across your face?"
Dark and Stormy
For the first time ever, a dust storm has been observed outside of our Solar System — and naturally, it was the powerful James Webb Space Telescope that made the discovery.
A press release on the Space Telescope Science Institute's Webb-site details the JWST-detected storm, which took place on exoplanet VHS 1256 b, a "massive brown dwarf" planet located about 40 lightyears from Earth.
"Ever had hot sand whip across your face?" the press release quips. "That’s a soothing experience compared to the volatile conditions discovered high in the atmosphere of planet VHS 1256 b."
The JWST was able not only to observe the distant dust storm, but also to determine what its atmosphere is made of: "silicate particles, ranging from fine specks to small grains."
"The team projects that the silicates swirling in these clouds periodically get too heavy and rain into the depths of the planet’s atmosphere," reads the release. "Webb’s observations also show clear signatures of water, methane and carbon monoxide, and provide evidence for carbon dioxide."
So Much Data
Pretty much everything about VHS 1256 b — a name that, honestly, sounds more like something you'd put in a VCR than a planet — seems extreme, per its descriptions on the STScI site.
As the BBC notes in its reporting on the Webb discovery, the planet that was first detected in 2015 by the Vista telescope in Chile is what's known as a "super Jupiter," with an atmosphere similar to our Solar System's gas giant but way bigger, between 12 to 18 times the mass.
While other telescopes have been able to gather in a piecemeal fashion as much information as Webb has about VHS 1256 b, this is the first time one telescope has gotten so much data at once.
"No other telescope has identified so many features at once for a single target," the University of California Santa Cruz's Andrew Skemer, who co-wrote the team's forthcoming paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, said. "We’re seeing a lot of molecules in a single spectrum from Webb that detail the planet’s dynamic cloud and weather systems."
The JWST has done it again, folks — and, as always, we simply love to see it.
More on Webb: Astronomers Complain That the JWST Is Producing Too Much Data, Too Fast