NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has made an extraordinary discovery: a planet where sand falls like rain. Named Wasp-107b, this exoplanet is located approximately 200 light-years away in the Virgo constellation. Its unique atmosphere, characterized by clouds of silicate sand, has earned it the nickname the “candy floss” planet.
Wasp-107b’s atmosphere mirrors Earth’s water cycle, but with a twist: instead of water transforming between solid and gaseous states, it’s sand that undergoes this cycle. Due to the intense heat of around 1,000 degrees Celsius in the lower atmosphere, silicate vapor rises and cools, forming microscopic sand grains that coalesce into clouds.
Once the sand clouds become dense enough, the sand particles begin to rain back down to the lower atmosphere. As they descend, they gradually return to their gaseous state, completing the cycle.
“The clouds would be like a hazy dust,” explained Leen Decin, the lead author of the study. “And these sand particles are streaming around at extremely high velocity – a few kilometers per second.”
This discovery marks a significant breakthrough in our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres. For the first time, scientists have been able to identify the chemical composition of clouds on another planet. According to the researchers’ observations, the combination of water vapor and sulfur dioxide in Wasp-107b’s atmosphere gives it a scent similar to burnt matches.
The James Webb Space Telescope plays a crucial role in this type of research. Its infrared capabilities allow it to peer through the atmospheres of distant planets and search for biosignature gases that could potentially indicate the presence of life.
“Our knowledge of other planets is based on what we know from Earth,” remarked Decin. “That’s a very restricted knowledge. But with JWST, we can begin to explore a wider range of planetary environments and expand our understanding of the diverse worlds that exist in our universe.”