Earth's surface teems with quartz. But on a giant world 1,300 light-years away, quartz zips through the planet's clouds.

Scientists pointed the James Webb Space Telescope — the most powerful observatory in space — at planet WASP-17 b, a gas giant world with temperatures of some 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius). For the first time, the researchers found evidence of tiny particles made of pure quartz in the atmosphere.

"We were thrilled!" David Grant, a scientist at the University of Bristol who worked on the research, said in a statement.




In the study, published in the peer-reviewed science journal Astrophysical Journal Letters, astronomers used a clever strategy to look into WASP-17 b's extremely distant clouds. They waited as the gas giant passed in front of its star, and then used an instrument aboard the Webb telescope (a spectrograph) to capture the light passing through the atmosphere. Similar to separating light into a rainbow of colors using a prism, the spectrograph allowed the research team to see what elements or minerals were present, and which ones weren't. This method, called "transmission spectroscopy," is one of the few ways we can glimpse the makeup of alien atmospheres in distant realms of the Milky Way Galaxy.


 "We were thrilled!"


These quartz (silicon and oxygen) particles are likely to be incredibly small — on the order of one-millionth of one centimeter — but are "probably similar in shape to the pointy hexagonal prisms found in geodes and gem shops on Earth," NASA explains. Unlike on Earth, this quartz might be forged in the scorching atmosphere, as opposed to on the surface.

Peering into planets like WASP-17 b allows astronomers to better grasp and catalogue what other planets and solar systems are made of, and whether some might even contain environs suitable for life. (A "hot Jupiter" like WASP-17 b is not a candidate for life to develop.)


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The Webb telescope's powerful abilities

The Webb telescope — a scientific collaboration between NASA, the ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency — is designed to peer into the deepest cosmos and reveal new insights about the early universe. But it's also peering at intriguing planets in our galaxy, along with the planets and moons in our solar system.


Here's how Webb is achieving unparalleled feats, and likely will for decades:

- Giant mirror: Webb's mirror, which captures light, is over 21 feet across. That's over two and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope's mirror. Capturing more light allows Webb to see more distant, ancient objects. As described above, the telescope is peering at stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

"We're going to see the very first stars and galaxies that ever formed," Jean Creighton, an astronomer and the director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, told Mashable in 2021.


- Infrared view: Unlike Hubble, which largely views light that's visible to us, Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, meaning it views light in the infrared spectrum. This allows us to see far more of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths than visible light, so the light waves more efficiently slip through cosmic clouds; the light doesn't as often collide with and get scattered by these densely packed particles. Ultimately, Webb's infrared eyesight can penetrate places Hubble can't.

"It lifts the veil," said Creighton.


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- Peering into distant exoplanets: The Webb telescope carries specialized equipment called spectrographs that will revolutionize our understanding of these far-off worlds. The instruments can decipher what molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide, and methane) exist in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets — be they gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will look at exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knows what we'll find?

"We might learn things we never thought about," Mercedes López-Morales, an exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian, told Mashable in 2021.

Already, astronomers have successfully found intriguing chemical reactions on a planet 700 light-years away, and as described above, the observatory has started looking at one of the most anticipated places in the cosmos: the rocky, Earth-sized planets of the TRAPPIST solar system.