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    New data show how quickly light pollution is obscuring the night sky

    The night sky has been brightening faster than researchers realized, thanks to the use of artificial lights at night. A study of more than 50,000 observations of stars by citizen scientists reveals that the night sky grew about 10 percent brighter, on average, every year from 2011 to 2022.

    In other words, a baby born in a region where roughly 250 stars were visible every night would see only 100 stars on their 18th birthday, researchers report in the Jan. 20 Science.

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    The perils of light pollution go far beyond not being able to see as many stars. Too much brightness at night can harm people’s health, send migrating birds flying into buildings, disrupt food webs by drawing pollinating insects toward lights instead of plants and may even interrupt fireflies trying to have sex (SN: 8/2/17; SN: 8/12/15).

    “In a way, this is a call to action,” says astronomer Connie Walker of the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory in Tucson. “People should consider that this does have an impact on our lives. It’s not just astronomy. It impacts our health. It impacts other animals who cannot speak for themselves.”

    Walker works with the Globe at Night campaign, which began in the mid-2000s as an outreach project to connect students in Arizona and Chile and now has thousands of participants worldwide. Contributors compare the stars they can see with maps of what stars would be visible at different levels of light pollution, and enter the results on an app.

    “I’d been quite skeptical of Globe at Night” as a tool for precision research, admits physicist Christopher Kyba of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. But the power is in the sheer numbers: Kyba and colleagues analyzed 51,351 individual data points collected from 2011 to 2022.

    “The individual data are not precise, but there’s a whole lot of them,” he says. “This Globe at Night project is not just a game; it’s really useful data. And the more people participate, the more powerful it gets.”

    Those data, combined with a global atlas of sky luminance published in 2016, allowed the team to conclude that the night sky’s brightness increased by an average 9.6 percent per year from 2011 to 2022 (SN: 6/10/16).

    Most of that increase was missed by satellites that collect brightness data across the globe. Those measurements saw just a 2 percent increase in brightness per year over the last decade.

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    There are several reasons for that, Kyba says. Since the early 2010s, many outdoor lights have switched from high-pressure sodium lightbulbs to LEDs. LEDs are more energy efficient, which has environmental benefits and cost savings.

    But LEDs also emit more short-wavelength blue light, which scatters off particles in the atmosphere more than sodium bulbs’ orange light, creating more sky glow. Existing satellites are not sensitive to blue wavelengths, so they underestimate the light pollution coming from LEDs. And satellites may miss light that shines toward the horizon, such as light emitted by a sign or from a window, rather than straight up or down.

    Satellites have missed some of the light pollution from LEDs, which emit in blue wavelengths. This image from the International Space Station shows LEDs in the center of Milan glowing brighter than the orange lights in the suburbs.Samantha Cristoforetti, NASA, ESA

    Astronomer and light pollution researcher John Barentine was not surprised that satellites underestimated the problem. But “I was still surprised by how much of an underestimate it was,” he says. “This paper is confirming that we’ve been undercounting light pollution in the world.”

    The good news is that no major technological breakthroughs are needed to help fix the problem. Scientists and policy makers just need to convince people to change how they use light at night — easier said than done.

    “People sometimes say light pollution is the easiest pollution to solve, because you just have to turn a switch and it goes away,” Kyba says. “That’s true. But it’s ignoring the social problem — that this overall problem of light pollution is made by billions of individual decisions.”

    Some simple solutions include dimming or turning off lights overnight, especially floodlighting or lights in empty parking lots.

    Kyba shared a story about a church in Slovenia that switched from four 400-watt floodlights to a single 58-watt LED, shining behind a cutout of the church to focus the light on its facade. The result was a 96 percent reduction in energy use and much less wasted light , Kyba reported in the International Journal of Sustainable Lighting in 2018. The church was still lit up, but the grass, trees and sky around it remained dark.

    “If it was possible to replicate that story over and over again throughout our society, it would suggest you could really drastically reduce the light in the sky, still have a lit environment and have better vision and consume a lot less energy,” he says. “This is kind of the dream.”

    Barentine, who leads a private dark-sky consulting firm, thinks widespread awareness of the problem — and subsequent action — could be imminent. For comparison, he points to a highly publicized oil slick fire on the Cuyahoga River, outside of Cleveland, in 1969 that fueled the environmental movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the Clean Water Act.

    “I think we’re on the precipice, maybe, of having the river-on-fire moment for light pollution,” he says. More

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    Enceladus is blanketed in a thick layer of snow

    Saturn’s moon Enceladus is shrouded in a thick layer of snow. In some places, the downy stuff is 700 meters deep, new research suggests.

    “It’s like Buffalo, but worse,” says planetary scientist Emily Martin, referring to the famously snowy city in New York. The snow depth suggests that Enceladus’ dramatic plume may have been more active in the past, Martin and colleagues report in the Mar. 1 Icarus.

    Planetary scientists have been fascinated by Enceladus’ geysers, made up of water vapor and other ingredients, since the Cassini spacecraft spotted them in 2005 (SN: 12/16/22). The spray probably comes from a salty ocean beneath an icy shell.

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    Some of that water goes to form one of Saturn’s rings (SN: 5/2/06). But most of it falls back onto the moon’s surface as snow, Martin says. Understanding the properties of that snow — its thickness and how dense and compact it is — could help reveal Enceladus’ history, and lay groundwork for future missions to this moon.

    “If you’re going to land a robot there, you need to understand what it’s going to be landing into,” says Martin, of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

    To figure out how thick Enceladus’ snow is, Martin and colleagues looked to Earth — specifically, Iceland. The island country hosts geological features called pit chains, which are lines of pockmarks in the ground formed when loose rubble such as rocks, ice or snow drains into a crack underneath (SN: 10/23/18). Similar features show up all over the solar system, including Enceladus.

    Pit chain craters in Iceland, like those shown here, helped planetary scientist Emily Martin and colleagues verify that they could measure the depth of craters on Enceladus. Martin took this image during a field excursion.E. Martin

    Previous work suggested a way to use geometry and the angle at which sunlight hits the surface to measure the depth of the pits. That measurement can then reveal the depth of the material the pits sit in. A few weeks of fieldwork in Iceland in 2017 and 2018 convinced Martin and her colleagues that the same technique would work on Enceladus.

    Using images from Cassini, Martin and colleagues found that the snow’s thickness varies across Enceladus’ surface. It is hundreds of meters deep in most places and 700 meters deep at its thickest.

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    It’s hard to imagine how all that snow got there, though, Martin says. If the plume’s spray was always what it is today, it would take 4.5 billion years — the entire age of the solar system — to deposit that much snow on the surface. Even then, the snow would have to be especially fluffy.

    It seems unlikely that the plume switched on the moment the moon formed and never changed, Martin says. And even if it did, later layers of snow would have compressed the earlier ones, compacting the whole layer and making it much less deep than it is today.

    “It makes me think we don’t have 4.5 billion years to do this,” Martin says. Instead, the plume might have been much more active in the past. “We need to do it in a much shorter timeframe. You need to crank up the volume on the plume.”

    The technique was clever, says planetary scientist Shannon MacKenzie of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. Without rovers or astronauts on the ground, there’s no way to scoop up the snow and see how far down it goes. “Instead, the authors are very cleverly using geology to be their rovers, to be their shovels.”

    MacKenzie was not involved in the new work, but she led a mission concept study for an orbiter and lander that could one day visit Enceladus. One of the major questions in that study was where a lander could safely touch down. “Key to those discussions was, what do we expect the surface to be?” she says. The new paper could help “identify the places that are too fluffy to land in.” More

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    The James Webb telescope found ‘Green Pea’ galaxies in the early universe

    Galaxies that helped transform the early universe may have been small, round and green.

    Astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope have spotted “Green Pea” galaxies dating to 13.1 billion years ago. These viridescent runts, spotted just 700 million years after the Big Bang, might have helped trigger one of the greatest makeovers in cosmic history, astronomers said at a January 9 news conference in Seattle at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting.

    Green Peas first showed up in 2009 in images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an ambitious project to map much of the sky. Citizen science volunteers gave the objects their colorful name. Their greenish hue is because most of their light comes from glowing gas clouds, rather than directly from stars.

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    These galaxies are rare in the present-day universe. Astronomers think that the ones that do exist are analogs of galaxies that were more plentiful in the early universe.

    “They’re a bit like living fossils,” said astrophysicist James Rhoads of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Coelacanths, if you will,” referencing a fish thought to be extinct until it showed up off the coast of South Africa in 1938 (SN: 12/2/11). 

    These galaxies leak much more ultraviolet light, which can rip electrons from atoms, than typical galaxies do. So Green Peas dating to the universe’s first billion years or so could be partly responsible for a dramatic and mysterious cosmic transition called reionization, when most of the hydrogen atoms in the early universe had their electrons torn away (SN: 1/7/20).

    Three ancient Green Peas turned up in JWST’s first image, released in July 2022 (SN: 7/21/22). The objects look red in JWST’s infrared vision, but the wavelengths of light they emit are like those of the previously discovered Green Peas. The findings were also published in the Jan. 1 Astrophysical Journal Letters.

    “This helps us explain how the universe reionized,” Rhoads said. “I think this is an important piece of the puzzle.” More

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    Methylated gases could be an unambiguous indicator of alien life

    SEATTLE — Attention alien hunters: If you want to find life on distant planets, try looking for signs of toxic chemical cleanup. 

    Gases that organisms produce as they tidy up their environments could provide clear signs of life on planets orbiting other stars, researchers announced January 9 at the American Astronomical Society meeting. All we need to do to find hints of alien life is to look for those gases in the atmospheres of those exoplanets, in images coming from the James Webb Space Telescope or other observatories that could come online soon.

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    Barring an interstellar radio broadcast, the chemistry of a remote planet is one of the more promising ways that researchers could detect extraterrestrial life. On Earth, life produces lots of chemicals that alter the atmosphere: Plants churn out oxygen, for example, and a host of animals and plants release methane. Life elsewhere in the galaxy might do the same thing, leaving a chemical signature humans could detect from afar (SN: 9/30/21).

    But many of life’s gases are also released in processes that have nothing to do with life at all. Their detection could lead to the false impression of a living planet in a faraway solar system, when it’s really just a sterile rock.

    At least one type of compound that some organisms produce to protect themselves from toxic elements, however, might provide unambiguous indications of life.

    The life-affirming compounds are called methylated gases. Microbes, fungi, algae and plants are among the terrestrial organisms that create the chemicals by linking carbon and hydrogen atoms to toxic materials such as chlorine or bromine. The resulting compounds evaporate, sweeping the deadly elements away.

    The fact that living creatures almost always have a hand in making methylated gases means the presence of the compounds in a planet’s atmosphere would be a strong sign of life of some kind, planetary astrobiologist Michaela Leung of the University of California, Riverside said at the meeting.

    The same isn’t true of oxygen and methane. Oxygen, in particular, can accumulate when a hot star warms a planet’s oceans. “You have a steam atmosphere, and the [ultraviolet] radiation from the star splits up the water” into its constituent parts, oxygen and hydrogen, Leung says. Hydrogen is light, so much of it is lost to space on small planets. “What you have left is all of this oxygen,” which, she says, leads to “really convincing oxygen signals in this process that at no point involved life.”

    Similarly, while living organisms produce methane in abundance, lifeless geological phenomena like volcanoes do too.

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    At the concentrations of methylated gases typical of Earth, these gases will be hard to see in the atmospheres of distant planets, even with an instrument as powerful as the Webb telescope (SN: 12/20/22). But Leung has reason to believe there may be planets where the gas abundance is thousands of times that of Earth.

    “The most productive environments [for releasing methylated gases] that we see here on Earth,” she says, “are things like estuaries and wetlands.” A watery planet with lots of small continents and correspondingly more coastline, for example, could be packed with organisms cleaning away toxic chemicals with methylated gases.

    One of the benefits of looking for the compounds as a sign of life is that it doesn’t require that the life resembles anything like what we have on our planet. “Maybe it’s not DNA-based, maybe it has other weird chemistry going on,” Leung says. But by assuming chlorine and bromine are likely to be toxic generally, methylated gases offer what Leung calls an agnostic biosignature, which can tell us that something is alive on a planet even if it’s utterly alien to us.

    “The more signs of life we know to look for, then the better our chances of recognizing life when we do encounter it,” says Vikki Meadows, an astrobiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who was not involved with the study. “It also helps us understand what kind of telescopes we should build, what we should look for and what the instrument requirements should be. Michaela’s work is really important for that reason.” More

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    Io may have an underworld magma ocean or a hot metal heart

    CHICAGO — An entire ocean of liquid magma, or maybe a hot heart of solid metal, may lurk in Io’s underworld.

    The surface of Jupiter’s innermost moon is covered in scorching lava lakes and gored by hundreds of active volcanoes, some spitting molten rock dozens of kilometers high (SN: 8/6/14). Over the years, the moon’s restless, mesmerizing hellscape has attracted the attention of many planetary scientists (SN: 5/3/22).

    Now, researchers are digging into the nature of Io’s infernal interior to explain what is driving the spectacular volcanism on the moon’s fiery surface. “It’s the most volcanically active place in the solar system,” says planetary scientist Samuel Howell of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “But it’s not really clear where that energy comes from.”

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    Researchers generally agree that Io gets most of its energy from a gravitational tug-of-war between its parent planet Jupiter and its sibling moon Europa. Those grand forces pull on Io’s rocky body, generating tremendous frictional heat in its interior. But how that heat is stored and moved around remains a mystery.

    One explanation is that Io’s netherworld may house an enormous ocean of liquid magma, planetary scientist David Stevenson of Caltech said December 15 at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. Though the exact size of the proposed molten sea remains uncertain, it would need to be relatively large, he said. “The magma ocean could be, say, 100 kilometers thick.”

    In 2011, researchers reported that Io’s mantle couldn’t be completely solid. Magnetic measurements of Io from the Galileo spacecraft indicated there must be an electrically conductive layer inside the moon. A global underground layer containing molten rock, the scientists wrote, would fit the bill.  

    Hot spots speckle the surface of the volcanic moon Io in this infrared image captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft on July 5, 2022, when the spacecraft was about 80,000 kilometers from the moon.JPL-Caltech/NASA, SwRI, ASI, INAF, JIRAM

    But the researchers couldn’t tell whether that layer would consist of a continuous sea of magma or many little pockets of molten rock dispersed throughout solid rock, resembling a soggy sponge.

    Building off that previous work, Stevenson and Caltech geophysicist Yoshinori Miyazaki calculated that a mixed layer of magma and solid rock beneath Io’s crust would be fundamentally unstable under the amount of heating they predict occurs inside the moon. The molten rock and solid rock would split into distinct layers, with the molten rock coalescing into a subsurface sea, Stevenson said. “The final conclusion is [that] Io has a magma ocean.”

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    But there are other possibilities. “A lot of information is consistent with a large, global conductive layer that could be a magma ocean,” Howell says. “But I wouldn’t say there’s consensus on how to interpret that data.”

    Instead, the truth may lie within Io’s heart, where a core made of solid metal may lurk, Howell reported December 15 at the meeting. Previous research has suggested that Io has a core rich in metals. Howell and colleagues calculate that a metal core that’s about as rigid as solid ice and a rocky mantle as viscous as Earth’s could fully dispense the immense quantities of heat that Io is estimated to emit. That would fulfill the energy-shedding role of a magma ocean.

    Future measurements collected by NASA’s ongoing Juno mission as well two future spacecraft — NASA’s Europa Clipper and the European Space Agency’s JUICE — may provide the data needed to determine whether either, or some combination, of the hypotheses is correct, Stevenson and Howell said (SN: 12/15/22). Until then, the mystery of what dwells in Io’s dark depths may have to remain in purgatory. More

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    The James Webb Space Telescope wasn’t the only big space news in 2022

    While the stunning images from the James Webb Space Telescope captured space fans’ attention this year, other telescopes and spacecraft were busy on Earth and around the solar system (SN Online: 12/7/22). Here are some of the coolest space highlights that had nothing to do with JWST.

    Back to the moon

    After several aborted attempts, NASA launched the Artemis I mission on November 16. That was a big step toward the goal of landing people on the moon as early as 2025 (SN: 12/3/22, p. 14). No human has set foot there since 1972. Artemis I included a new rocket, the Space Launch System, which had previously suffered a series of hydrogen fuel leaks, and the new Orion spacecraft. No astronauts were aboard the test flight, but Orion carried a manikin in the commander’s seat and two manikin torsos to test radiation protection and life-support systems, plus a cargo hold full of small satellites that went off on their own missions. On December 11, the Orion capsule successfully returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Mexico (SN Online: 12/12/22).

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    DART shoves an asteroid

    NASA’s DART spacecraft successfully nudged an asteroid into a new orbit this year. On September 26, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test slammed into asteroid Dimorphos, about 11 million kilometers from Earth at the time of impact. In October, NASA announced that the impact shortened Dimorphos’ roughly 12-hour orbit around its sibling asteroid, Didymos, by 32 minutes (SN: 11/5/22, p. 14). Dimorphos posed no threat to Earth, but the test will help inform future missions to divert any asteroids on a potentially dangerous collision course with our home planet, researchers say.

    This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows a split stream of dust and rock streaming off the asteroid Dimorphos nearly 12 days after the DART spacecraft smashed into it.NASA, ESA, STSCI, HUBBLE

    Massive Marsquakes

    The InSight Mars lander is going out on a high note. After scientists reported in May that InSight had recorded the largest known Marsquake, roughly a magnitude 5, news came in October that the lander’s seismometer had also detected the rumblings of the two biggest meteorite impacts ever observed on Mars. Those impacts created gaping craters and sent seismic waves rippling along the top of the planet’s crust.

    The details of how those waves and others moved through the Red Planet gave researchers new intel on the structure of Mars’ crust, which is hard to study any other way. The data also suggest that some Marsquakes are caused by magma moving beneath the surface (SN: 12/3/22, p. 12). The solar panels that power the lander are now covered in dust after four years on Mars, a death knell for the mission.

    InSight’s seismometer, seen in the lower left of this artist’s rendition of the lander, detected Mars’ largest known quake this year.JPL-CALTECH/NASA

    Chemistry of life turns up in meteorites

    All five bases in DNA and RNA have been found in rocks that fell to Earth. Three of the nucleobases, which combine with sugars and phosphates to make up the genetic material of all known life, had previously been found in meteorites. But the last two — cytosine and thymine — were reported from space rocks only this year (SN: 6/4/22, p. 7). The find supports the idea that life’s precursors could have come to Earth from space, researchers say.

    A two-gram chunk from this piece of meteorite contains two crucial components of DNA and RNA now identified for the first time in an extraterrestrial source.NASA

    Sagittarius A* snapshot

    The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way became the second black hole to get its close-up. After releasing a picture of the behemoth at the heart of galaxy M87 in 2019, astronomers used data from the Event Horizon Telescope, a network of radio telescopes around the world, to assemble an image of Sagittarius A* (SN: 6/4/22, p. 6). The image, released in May, shows a faint fuzzy shadow nestled in the glowing ring of the accretion disk. That may not sound impressive on its own, but the result provides new details about the turbulence roiling near our black hole’s edge.

    The Event Horizon Telescope revealed this first-ever image of our galaxy’s supermassive black hole.Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration More

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    The James Webb telescope is getting glimpses of small, far-off planets

    BALTIMORE — When the James Webb Space Telescope was first dreamed up, exoplanets hadn’t even been discovered yet. Now the observatory is showing astronomers what it can learn about planets orbiting other stars — including the small ones.

    Since its launch in December 2021, JWST had already “sniffed” the atmospheres of Jupiter-sized planets orbiting searingly close to their stars (SN: 8/26/22). Those intense worlds are interesting, but not the places where astronomers hope to look for signs of life. The telescope is now getting glimpses of atmospheres on known exoplanets of the more terrestrial persuasion, astronomers reported December 13 and 14 at the First Science Results from JWST conference.

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    And JWST is starting to find new rocky worlds too.

    These early peeks at far-off worlds don’t yet reveal a lot about these remote locales. But researchers are buoyed by what JWST’s sharp vision in infrared wavelengths could eventually unearth about the smaller planets beyond our solar system.

    “The main message is, we’re in business,” said University of Montreal astronomer Björn Benneke. “We don’t even have all the observations yet, but they are already quite exciting.”

    One of the smaller planets that JWST looked at is GJ 1214b, which has frustrated astronomers since its discovery in 2009 (SN: 12/16/09). The planet is a sub-Neptune, meaning its size is somewhere between that of a rocky world like Earth and a gaseous one like Neptune.

    “What the heck are sub-Neptunes?” asked astronomer Eliza Kempton of the University of Maryland in College Park. They could be balls of rock with thick hydrogen and helium atmospheres, or maybe water worlds (SN: 2/22/12). “What we’d like to do with atmospheric characterization is measure their atmospheres and see which is which,” Kempton said.

    Previously, astronomers tried to observe the makeup of GJ 1214b’s atmosphere by watching how starlight filtered through it. But the atmosphere is thick and hazy, blocking astronomers’ ability to detect individual molecules in it.

    Instead of watching the planet pass in front of its star, Kempton and colleagues used JWST to look for the glow of the planet right before it disappeared behind the star. And it worked: After 38 hours of observing, the researchers detected the planet’s infrared glow, Kempton said in a December 13 presentation.

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    There’s more work to do, but the initial data suggest the planet has a lot of chemical components, possibly including water and methane. It’s also enriched in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.

    As for knowing what kind of world GJ 1214b is, “I’d say we’re not quite there yet,” Kempton said. It could be a watery planet, she said, or a gassy planet that has lost a fair amount of its lighter elements.

    The telescope also had its first look at the tantalizing TRAPPIST-1 system, Benneke said in a different December 13 presentation (SN: 12/13/17). Discovered in 2017, the system contains seven Earth-sized worlds that are probably rocky. Three of those planets might have the right temperatures for liquid water to exist on their surface, making them particularly interesting targets for JWST and other telescopes to look for signs of life.

    But TRAPPIST-1 is a small, red star called an M dwarf, a type of star that is notorious for violent flares and strong radiation. For years, astronomers have debated whether planets around these stars would be hospitable to life, or if the stars would strip their planets’ atmospheres away (SN: 6/14/17).

    “If the TRAPPIST planets don’t have atmospheres, then we need to move on” from M dwarfs in the search for extraterrestrial life, says astronomer Mercedes Lόpez-Morales of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who was not involved in the new JWST observations.

    JWST’s first look at one of those potentially habitable worlds, TRAPPIST-1g, did not reveal any clear signs of an atmosphere. But the telescope looked at the planet for only about five hours. With more observations, an atmosphere should be detectable if it’s there, Benneke said.

    JWST is getting into the planet-hunting game too, said astronomer Kevin Stevenson on December 14. The telescope double-checked a potentially interesting observation from another telescope and confirmed that it had seen a rocky, Earth-sized world around a nearby M dwarf. This proves that JWST has the precision to find such worlds.

    “It is an exciting result, perhaps the first discovery of an exoplanet by JWST,” said Stevenson, of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The planet orbits its dim star every two days, so it’s probably around 225° Celsius on the surface — likely too hot to be habitable, he says. “It’s more like an exo-Venus than an exo-Earth.”

    While it’s still early days, the researchers emphasized, the forecast for planet hunting using JWST is good.

    The results are paving the way for future observatories too, said astrophysicist John Mather of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Astronomers’ wish list for future missions includes a telescope that can dig even further into the details of potentially habitable worlds.

    “If it’s not impossible,” Mather said, “let’s do it.” More

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    The first planet found by the Kepler space telescope is doomed

    The first planet ever spotted by the Kepler space telescope is falling into its star.

    Kepler launched in 2009 on a mission to find exoplanets by watching them cross in front of their stars. The first potential planet the telescope spotted was initially dismissed as a false alarm, but in 2019 astronomer Ashley Chontos and colleagues proved it was real (SN: 3/5/19). The planet was officially named Kepler 1658b.

    Now, Chontos and others have determined Kepler 1658b’s fate. “It is tragically spiraling into its host star,” says Chontos, now at Princeton University. The planet has roughly 2.5 million years left before it faces a fiery death. “It will ultimately end up being engulfed. Death by star.”

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    The roughly Jupiter-sized planet is searingly hot, orbiting its star once every three days. In follow-up observations from 2019 to 2022, the planet kept transiting the star earlier than expected.

    Combined data from Kepler and other telescopes show that the planet is inching closer to the star, Chontos and colleagues report December 19 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

    “You can see the interval between the transits is shrinking, really slowly but really consistently, at a rate of 131 milliseconds per year,” says astrophysicist Shreyas Vissapragada of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

    That doesn’t sound like much. But if this trend continues, the planet has only 2 million or 3 million years left to live. “For something that’s been around for 2 to 3 billion years, that’s pretty short,” Vissapragada says. If the planet’s lifetime was a more human 100 years, it would have a little more than a month left.

    Studying Kepler 1658b as it dies will help explain the life cycles of similar planets. “Learning something about the actual physics of how orbits shrink over time, we can get a better handle on the fates of all of these planets,” Vissapragada says. More