Analyzing the atmosphere of exosolar planets

| February 21, 2007

This is just too cool:

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has captured for the first time enough light from planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets, to identify signatures of molecules in their atmospheres. The landmark achievement is a significant step toward being able to detect possible life on rocky exoplanets and comes years before astronomers had anticipated….

The data indicate the two planets are drier and cloudier than predicted. Theorists thought hot Jupiters would have lots of water in their atmospheres, but surprisingly none was found around HD 209458b and HD 189733b. According to astronomers, the water might be present but buried under a thick blanket of high, waterless clouds.

Those clouds might be filled with dust. One of the planets, HD 209458b, showed hints of tiny sand grains, called silicates, in its atmosphere. This could mean the planet’s skies are filled with high, dusty clouds unlike anything seen around planets in our own solar system.

“The theorists’ heads were spinning when they saw the data,” said Dr. Jeremy Richardson of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

I grew up during the first age of planetary exploration, culminating with working at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston during the Voyager 1 flyby of Saturn in November of 1980. We had a large screen TV (early projection-style) set up in the lobby at LPI and had a direct feed from JPL as images came in. I got to listen to planetary scientists react and debate in real-time to what the images revealed.

We’re now embarking upon the second age of planetary exploration — but this time, we’re exploring planets outside of our own solar system. I suspect that what we find will only underscore J. B. S. Haldane’s famous aphorism: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.”

Hat tip to Slashdot. ..bruce..

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Category: Science, Space

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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