comScore NASA Telescopes Discover Water on a Distant Planet | The Mary Sue
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NASA Telescopes Discover Water on Distant Planet, the Search for Alien Life Continues!

Now they just need to look for earth, fire, wind, and heart.

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While everyone’s focused on finding evidence of ancient waters on Mars and the oceans under Europa’s icy shell, researchers using several NASA telescopes have detected water in the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet. It’s the smallest exoplanet which has had atmospheric elements identified and is an important step in the search for worlds outside our solar system that may support life.

The planet HAT-P-11b is located about 120 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. It’s a gas giant roughly the size of Neptune, but it sits much closer to its system’s star, which makes it significantly warmer. It was thought to have a dense, gassy atmosphere and a rocky core, but its exact composition and that of exoplanets like it had been unconfirmed before this new discovery.

Using the Kepler and Spitzer telescopes, the researchers observed how the light they were seeing from the planet changed as it passed in front of its host star. Thanks to clear skies on HAT-P-11b, they noticed telltale light signatures from the way water molecules in the rim of a planet’s atmosphere absorb and bend light. After ruling out other possible sources of water vapor like cool starspots on the star itself, they’ve published their finding that the planet’s atmosphere contains water vapor in the journal Nature.

Examining the composition of ever smaller exoplanets is key in the quest to analyze the makeup of the smallest exoplanets: rocky Earth-sized worlds and “super-Earths.” These are the places we’re most likely to find alien life, and being able to determine if they have hospitable atmospheres—and water—will help us know which ones are worth investigating.

As John Grunsfeld, assistant administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington said, “This discovery is a significant milepost on the road to eventually analyzing the atmospheric composition of smaller, rocky planets more like Earth. Such achievements are only possible today with the combined capabilities of these unique and powerful observatories.”

And our observatories are going to be even more powerful soon. Similar techniques are planned to be used to identify water on distant planets with the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope when it is finally sent into orbit to replace the Hubble. With their powers magnified, these new techniques are our best chance for finding distant alien life.

(via NASA, image via Captain Planet)

Previously in the search for intelligent life

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