Studying the atmospheres of exoplanets is one of the main goals of the James Webb Space Telescope, now scheduled for launch in mid 2019. The mission recently asked for proposals for “Early Release Science”, observations to test out the instruments, show what JWST can so, and supply the community with data to start analysing.
Of 13 ERS proposals accepted, the “The Transiting Exoplanet Community ERS Program”, led by Kepler lead-scientist Natalie Batalha, got all the time it asked for.
WASP planets feature heavily in the ERS program, since many transit relatively bright stars. Large, puffy gaseous planets will also give the strongest and clearest signals of atmospheric features, and so are optimum early targets. While JWST will want to look also at atmospheres of smaller, rocky planets, “Astronomers initially will train their gaze onto gaseous Jupiter-sized worlds like WASP-39b and WASP-43b because they are easier targets on which to [look for the chemical fingerprints of the atmosphere’s gases]”.
The target list for the ERS proposal is currently being finalised in the light of the recent delay in JWST launch from 2018 to 2019, though an earlier draft of the proposal featured 7 WASP planets out of 12 targets.
Further, the four GTO teams have also selected WASP planets for early JWST observations. GTO time (“Guaranteed Time Observations”) is time allocated to the teams who built the JWST instruments as a reward and incentive. All four instrument teams have picked WASP planets, including WASP-17b, WASP-52b, WASP-43b, WASP-69b, WASP-77Ab, WASP-80b, WASP-107b and WASP-121b.
Meanwhile, Kevin Heng, of the University of Bern, has written a popular-level account for American Scientist of how JWST is expected to revolutionise the study of exoplanet atmospheres.