James Webb Telescope Spots Raging Dust Storms on an Exoplanet

The far-off world also has signs of water, methane, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide

orange planet with a red spot
An illustration of exoplanet VHS 1256 b, which is surrounded by clouds of hot silicate particles. NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

For the first time, astronomers have found evidence of violent dust storms deep in space, swirling high in the atmosphere of a Jupiter-like planet.

In a paper published Wednesday in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the team details what they’ve learned about the exoplanet, called VHS 1256 b—and it’s brutal.

“Ever had hot sand whip across your face? That’s a soothing experience compared to the volatile conditions discovered high in the atmosphere of planet VHS 1256 b,” writes the Space Telescope Science Institute in a statement.

The harsh exoplanet is home to clouds filled with tiny silicate particles, ranging in size from fine specks to grains. These swirling shards are super-heated—the planet’s upper atmosphere can run to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, or nearly the temperature of a candle flame. VHS 1256 b’s atmosphere is constantly shifting, moving and mixing as hotter material rises and cooler material falls. Sometimes, when the gritty silicate particles grow too heavy, they might rain down into the lower levels of the atmosphere.

Located 40 light-years away from Earth, the distant world is what’s referred to as a “super Jupiter,” a planet fairly similar to the gas giant but much, much bigger—some 12 to 18 times more massive, writes Jonathan Amos for BBC News. Its day is a mere 22 hours, but its year is 10,000 times the length of ours. VHS 1256 b orbits not one, but two stars, and as planets go, it’s relatively young, having been around for just 150 million years.

James Webb also spotted strong signatures of several molecules in the exoplanet’s atmosphere—carbon monoxide, water and methane. The telescope even picked up on evidence of carbon dioxide.

“No other telescope has identified so many features at once for a single target,” says study co-author Andrew Skemer, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the statement.

emission spectrum graph
The James Webb Space Telescope revealed evidence of water, methane, carbon monoxide and silicates on the exoplanet. NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

Finding and studying planets outside our solar system is one of the central goals of Webb, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. It detected carbon dioxide on an exoplanet in August and took its first direct image of one in September. In January, the $10 billion telescope confirmed a new exoplanet for the first time, verifying a NASA satellite’s tenuous past observations of the far-off world.

In the case of VHS 1256 b, astronomers got a little lucky—the planet is far enough away from its host stars that their light doesn’t mess with Webb’s observations. The telescope was able to collect data on the planet directly, rather than having to block out its stars’ light with a special instrument or waiting to detect the miniscule change in brightness when the exoplanet passes in front of its stars.

As time goes by and the relatively young planet gets a few billion years older, it might become less of a hellscape, scientists say. When VHS 1256 b is the age of Earth, perhaps it will be less turbulent and not as scorching hot.

For now, though, the researchers plan to look more closely at Webb’s data to see what other discoveries may be awaiting on this dust-cloaked planet.

“With only a few hours of observations, we have what feels like unending potential for additional discoveries,” says co-author Beth Biller, an astronomer at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, in the statement.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.