In A First, JWST Detects An Atmosphere Around A Rocky Exoplanet

12:12 minutes

An artist's rendering bright star shining onto a dark exoplanet.
This artist’s concept shows what the exoplanet 55 Cancri e could look like based on observations from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and other observatories. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ralf Crawford (STScI)

Earlier this week, astronomers announced they had discovered an atmosphere around a rocky Earth-like planet named 55 Cancri e, about 40 light-years away from Earth, thanks to instruments onboard the JWST telescope. Finding an atmosphere around a rocky planet is a big step for exoplanet exploration: Earth’s atmosphere is crucial to its ability to sustain life, and astronomers need to be able to identify rocky planets that have atmospheres to search for life outside the solar system.

However, 55 Cancri e is likely far too hot to have any life: Researchers estimate the surface temperature to be about 3,100 F, thanks to its close proximity to its sun and a probable magma ocean that envelops the planet. But this could also give clues to Earth’s formation, as its own surface was also once covered by lava.

Jason Dinh, climate editor at Atmos, joins guest host Sophie Bushwick to talk about this and other top news in science this week, including tightening restrictions on risky virus research in the US, possible evidence for a sperm whale “alphabet,” and how environmental changes are leading to an increase in disease in humans, animals, and plants.

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Segment Guests

Jason P. Dinh

Jason P. Dinh is Climate Editor at Atmos Magazine in Washington, DC.  He previously was an NSF-funded intern at Science Friday.

Segment Transcript

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is Science Friday. I’m Sophie Bushwick, senior news editor at New Scientist, and I’m filling in for Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, a wildlife ecologist talks about going from living with lions to hosting a renowned nature TV show and why too many trees can be a bad thing, especially when it comes to endangered prairie lands.

But first, researchers this week announced a landmark discovery. Using the James Webb Space Telescope, they discovered an atmosphere around a rocky Earth-like planet, a first for astronomers. Here to explain what this means for the future of exoplanet exploration and what a distant world could tell us about Earth’s past is Jason Dinh, climate editor at Atmos. Welcome to Science Friday.

JASON DINH: Thanks for having me.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So tell us about this exoplanet discovery. Why is this a big deal?

JASON DINH: Yeah. So this is thanks to new data from the James Webb Telescope, and they discovered that this planet named 55 Cancri e has an atmosphere. So this is a rocky exoplanet, and it’s the first time that a rocky exoplanet has been found with an atmosphere, so it’s a pretty huge milestone. The planet is about 41 light years away, and that planet itself is not a new discovery. It’s actually one of the most well-studied exoplanets ever, but this new evidence suggesting that the planet has an atmosphere is pretty big news.

Now, despite having this atmosphere, astronomers are pretty quick to say that they don’t think that it’s suitable to life, at least as we know it, because it’s super hot. So it’s probably covered by a magma ocean, and according to this latest study, it’s around 2800 Fahrenheit.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So I could breathe if I was there, but only for a short while before I burned up.

JASON DINH: Yeah, yeah, exactly.


JASON DINH: You’d be lucky if you got a breath in.


JASON DINH: Despite being not a source of life, scientists are still pretty excited about the discovery because it could provide us clues about our own planet’s history. So, for example, Earth probably went through a magma ocean phase early in its history, and maybe astronomers can study 55 Cancri e to figure out what those early years of our planet might have been like. And beyond that, the fact that we can spot this super thin atmosphere that far away from our own solar system is a really good sign if we want to be able to search for life elsewhere.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s very exciting. But back here on Earth, this week, the White House announced new rules on risky virus research. What’s going on with that?

JASON DINH: Yeah. So on Monday night, the White House announced that they’re basically tightening up the rules that exist now. They want to prevent a dangerous lab leak that could, for example, unleash the next pandemic. So the first big change is in who these rules are going to apply to, so they really broaden the types of pathogens that are subject to oversight. So before, they had this short list of pathogens of interest, and the new rules kind of overhaul that system, and they replace them with these broad categories that pathogens might fall into, so those that have pandemic potential, or pose national security threats, or threaten agriculture.

And then the second big change is in what the research projects that fall under this umbrella are going to have to do. So they’ll first have to consult with their university and gauge how risky this project is going to be. They’ll send the potentially dangerous projects to be reviewed by federal funding agencies, like the NIH or the NSF. And just to give you an example, one project that might very clearly get a scrutinous review would be one that wanted to alter a pathogen and see how it evolves to become more transmissible between humans. And throughout this whole process, everyone’s going to be assessing the risks and the benefits of doing this kind of research and laying out mitigation plans to avoid the worst-case scenarios.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And how do scientists feel about these new rules? Do they think they should have gone farther? Do they think they’re too strict?

JASON DINH: It’s a little bit of a mixed bag. So some scientists say that this is a pretty big leap forward. Others say it’s quite moderate, so it abstains from implementing some of the more aggressive proposals, like creating a whole new government agency to deal with these kinds of lab risks. But almost everyone seems to think that this is a reasonable step, at least, in the right direction.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And over the past decade, we’ve seen an increase in opioid addiction and drug overdoses, and there’s a new study that’s looking at how this is affecting kids– kids whose parents have overdosed. Tell us about it.

JASON DINH: Yeah, so this new study found that a really staggering 320,000 children in the US have lost a parent from drug overdose between 2011 and 2021, and that rate is actually climbing, it seems. So in 2021, about 27 out of every 100,000 children lost a parent, and by 2021, that more than doubled to around 63 out of 100,000. And one of the clear trends is that not everybody is affected equally. So Native American children experienced the highest rates of loss. It was more than double what was seen in non-Native, white, and Black children.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And is there anything that can be done to reduce this rate and prevent this problem?

JASON DINH: Yeah, so the authors of the study really hope that these findings spur action to protect these kids. So, for example, rather than removing them from their home, maybe authorities can keep them with their siblings and relatives and support network after their parents pass, and maybe it could even compel policymakers to prevent these overdoses in the first place. So you can imagine them reconsidering the policies that are in place now that require health care providers to report parents to child welfare authorities if they find out those parents are substance abusers, which really, in a way, kind of punishes them for trying to seek help for their substance use.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Mm-hmm. All right, let’s head over to the oceans. It seems like sperm whales might have a more complex communication system than we thought.

JASON DINH: Yeah, totally. So this new study came out and made the pretty controversial claim, I would say, that the sperm whale communication system might even have the foundations for what’s considered language. So sperm whales produce these series of clicks that sounds a lot like Morse code, and they do it in these characteristic patterns, which are called “codas.” So these researchers studied this clan of whales in the Caribbean that perform about 21 types of those codas. So if you’re thinking about making a language, 21 words isn’t a lot to build on.


JASON DINH: In this study, they used AI pattern detection on about 9,000 recordings of these whales, and they discovered that there’s actually far richer variation and nuance in their vocal repertoire than we once appreciated. So they found that these whales will vary a coda’s tempo and rhythm in very predictable ways, and they’ll even add extra notes to them. And they think these subtle tweaks actually might mean something in their communication, and that’s because they don’t seem to be random. It seems like whales actually sense and respond to this variation.

So, for example, sometimes two whales are doing codas with each other– one will gradually speed up, and the other one actually mirrors that tempo change, and it’ll start speeding up as well. And in one of their most important and controversial findings, the researchers showed that these elements, like extra notes and tempo changes, can be combined into a pretty big inventory of unique combinations. They call these elements actually a “sperm whale phonetic alphabet,” and, in a way, it’s kind of analogous to our language, where we can combine a finite number of sounds a million different ways and really create an infinite array of meaning, and in principle, it seems like sperm whales might be able to do that, too.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So are we getting close to a translation for sperm whale communication?

JASON DINH: So I wouldn’t say we’re getting close. I don’t think the researchers would either. They do see this as a pretty big step towards one day deciphering those conversations and maybe even taking part in them, but other researchers say that maybe this isn’t really language– maybe it’s actually more like a musical performance.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s very cool. And in the next story, there’s yet another big problem with climate change. It looks like it’s affecting how well plants and animals can combat disease.

JASON DINH: Yeah. So this new study published in nature found that biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution, and invasive species– all things that we’re doing to our planet– are all making infectious diseases more widespread and more dangerous. And of these things, biodiversity loss is the single greatest driver. So this paper synthesized the results from about 1,000 published studies on the links between human change and disease, and of course, this includes human disease, but it also includes disease in other animals and in plants, and it spanned every single continent except for Antarctica. So these links that they’re finding between human change and disease are really robust, and they apply to basically all geographies across the tree of life.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And aren’t some of these environmental changes linked? Like, biodiversity loss is impacted by climate change and climate change is impacted by pollution.

JASON DINH: Right, exactly. Yeah. So the researchers actually say that the next step of all of this is to figure out how these different individual facets of change in the Anthropocene interact to affect disease in tandem because we’re not facing just climate change– we’re facing all of these risks at once.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And finally, a story that I absolutely love– scientists found that some snakes can play dead?

JASON DINH: Yeah, I love this study, too. So this study was on a species of snake called dice snakes, which I now think of as the thespians of the animal kingdom. So when dice snakes are attacked by predators, they play dead in one of the most melodramatic ways I’ve ever heard of. They writhe around, they’ll soil themselves with feces–


JASON DINH: –they’ll go limp, and then they open up their mouths and stick their tongues out. It’s very silly.


JASON DINH: And in most– [LAUGHS] you should look up a picture if you haven’t. It’s great. In the most extreme cases, they actually start bleeding from their mouths to really commit to the bit.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s so intense. [LAUGHS]

JASON DINH: So intense. And a lot of animals play dead, but this whole blood-and-guts thing is a lot less common. So the researchers in this new study wanted to figure out– is this more effective at getting them away from predators? So they did this experiment where they went to find, like, 250 snakes, and they pretended to be predators. They grabbed them, and squeezed them, and stretched them out on the ground while the snakes were doing this really elaborate death act, and then they moved out of sight, like a disgusted predator might.

And what they found was that the snakes that covered themselves in dung played dead for a shorter amount of time by about two seconds, and so they think this means that this super gory strategy allows snakes to escape a very vulnerable position where they’re motionless, pretending to be dead, as soon as possible. And it doesn’t sound like a lot, but for an animal in this position, two seconds could really mean life or death.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So the power of acting could be saving their lives.

JASON DINH: Exactly, exactly.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Was there a difference in the kinds of snakes that chose to play dead versus to just not?

JASON DINH: Yeah. So they found that the adult snakes were more likely to play dead and were more successful at it than the juvenile snakes, and they say it’s because a juvenile snake is already at risk for being eaten, more so than an adult snake is, and so subjecting itself to this really vulnerable position of trying to stay still or else being eaten is a risk that they’re just not willing to take or is not smart to take.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Or maybe they just haven’t graduated from drama school yet.

JASON DINH: Yeah, send them to school, [LAUGHS] totally.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: [LAUGHS] These were great stories, Jason. Thank you for bringing them.

JASON DINH: Thank you for having me. My pleasure.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That was Jason Dinh, climate editor at Atmos.

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About D. Peterschmidt

D. Peterschmidt is a producer, host of the podcast Universe of Art, and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

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Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

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