AAt some point, things were destined to settle in the glass-enclosed mission control room at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. For most of that year the Institute was the center of the astronomical world. After all, that’s where every image captured by the new James Webb Space Telescope first arrives, including dazzling batch received and released in July. But the real work the institute’s team does—analyzing the scientific data embedded in the pictures—is quieter, less flashy work.
This week though, as reported by NASA, that silence was broken by a new analysis of one of the images from July. And as TIME has just learned, Webb will cause even more excitement soon with the long-awaited first-ever photo release. Together, the STScI team’s ongoing analysis of the images will tell us more than ever before about solar systems beyond our own—and the possibility that life might exist there.
For starters, STScI researchers announced this week that Webb has taken a major step in the search for chemical fingerprints of biology on distant exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars): the discovery of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet known as WASP-39 b . This marks the first clear detection of CO2 in the atmosphere of any planet outside the eight that orbit our sun.
WASP-39 b is what astronomers rather unscientifically call a puffy planet, 1.3 times the diameter of Jupiter but only a quarter as massive. It also orbits so close to its parent star that its atmosphere reaches a hot 900º C (1600º F). Regardless of the presence of organic chemistry, WASP-39 b is not where astronomers would expect to go looking for life. Yet the presence of CO2 on the planet, combined with water vapor, sodium and potassium, which the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes had already detected there, is another small piece of evidence that the universe is, among other things, a giant array of organic chemistry. one in which things from biology are found almost everywhere. This bodes well for similar discoveries on rockier, more temperate worlds where life can take hold.
“Finding such a clear carbon dioxide signal on WASP-39 b bodes well for the detection of atmospheres on smaller Earth-sized planets,” astronomer Natalie Batala of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the team that made the discovery, said in a statement . with more than 5000 exoplanets having been spotted across the galaxy, astronomers now believe that virtually every star in the universe is surrounded by at least one planet—and many, like our own sun, by a whole litter of them. These are many places where biology can come into play.
In the meantime, expect more big news from Webb in the coming weeks – and plenty more buzz around STScI mission management. While astronomers have been able to study exoplanet atmospheres by analyzing changes in the wavelength of light that passes through a planet’s air as it passes in front of its parent star, no one has ever taken a picture of the exoplanet itself. That, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told TIME in a conversation last week, is about to change thanks to Webb.
“Just a quick preview,” he said, “the next picture you’ll get [from Webb] is from an exoplanet. I don’t know when they will release it and I haven’t seen it yet. But… it just opens up all new understandings of the universe for us.”
This story originally appeared in TIME Space, our weekly newsletter covering all things space. You can register here.
More must-see stories from TIME