James Webb Space Telescope has just made a revolutionary discovery by revealing how planets are made.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA's pioneering observatory, has just made a revolutionary discovery that sheds light on the process of planet formation. 

By capturing the presence of water vapor within protoplanetary disks, the JWST has provided empirical support to a theory that has long proposed how planets are born and evolve.

According to this theory, icy pebbles form in the cold, outer reaches of protoplanetary disks, similar to the birthplace of comets in our own solar system. 

These pebbles are then drawn inward toward the star, a journey facilitated by the friction within the disk's gas. As they travel, they carry solid materials and water, which are essential for the formation of rocky planets.

A critical prediction of this theory is that as these icy pebbles cross the "snowline"—the point at which ice turns into vapor—they should release significant amounts of water vapor. The JWST's observations have confirmed this crucial step in the planet formation process.

"This finding opens up exciting prospects for studying rocky planet formation with Webb," remarked Andrea Banzatti, the principal investigator from Texas State University. The research team, which includes Colette Salyk of Vassar College, has moved beyond the static models of planet formation, demonstrating through evidence that different zones within a disk are not isolated but can indeed interact and exchange materials.

Utilizing the JWST's Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), the researchers examined four protoplanetary disks surrounding young stars similar to our Sun. Their findings revealed that compact disks, which are expected to have efficient pebble drift, exhibited a higher concentration of water in their inner regions. This contrasted with larger disks, where pebbles were trapped in rings further out.

This illustration interprets data from the James Webb Space Telescope's Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which detects water vapor in protoplanetary disks. It contrasts the dynamics of pebble drift and water distribution in two types of disks: a compact disk and an extended disk with distinct rings and gaps.
On the left side of the graphic, a compact disk is depicted. Here, ice-encrusted pebbles migrate smoothly towards the star's warmer vicinity. This migration is uninterrupted, allowing the pebbles to cross the snow line seamlessly. As they do, the ice coating sublimates into vapor, significantly enriching the inner, rocky planets in the process of formation with water.
Conversely, the right side of the illustration showcases an extended disk characterized by rings and gaps. In this scenario, the inward journey of the ice-laden pebbles is hindered by the gaps, causing many to be captured within the rings. This results in fewer pebbles reaching the snow line, thus delivering a lesser amount of water to the disk's inner region.
This visual representation, provided by NASA, ESA, CSA, and Joseph Olmsted of the Space Telescope Science Institute, effectively demonstrates the influence of disk structure on the distribution of water and, consequently, on the planet formation process within different disk environments.

The discovery of an excess of cool water vapor inside the snowline of compact disks, closer than previously observed, underscores the JWST's capabilities in resolving the fine details of cosmic phenomena. Published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, this groundbreaking discovery by the JWST not only affirms a central aspect of how planets form but also highlights the telescope's role in advancing our understanding of the cosmos.

Research paper, NASA