U.S. space telescope identifies parts in distant atmospheres

February 22, 2007|By Michael Cabbage | Michael Cabbage,ORLANDO SENTINEL

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- In a first, a NASA space telescope has identified molecules in the atmospheres of alien worlds outside our solar system.

Recent observations indicate that two giant gas planets trillions of miles away are cloudier and drier than theorists had predicted. However, just as important as the unprecedented scientific data is the potential the discovery holds for eventually finding life on distant Earth-like bodies.

"These results are a very important steppingstone for our ultimate goal of characterizing planets around other stars where life could exist," said Mark Swain, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The results you're seeing ... are really a dress rehearsal for what we're looking forward to in the future."

The discovery was made using information collected by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, a $670 million observatory launched from Cape Canaveral in 2003.

Like its sister spacecraft, the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer is one of the agency's four "Great Observatories" that survey the cosmos with sophisticated science instruments from a clear vantage point beyond Earth's atmosphere. The Spitzer follows our planet in an orbit around the sun.

Most of the Spitzer telescope's most important observations are made by using light from the infrared part of the spectrum instead of light visible to the human eye. By separating the light emitted by a distant planet into different wavelengths, astronomers can determine the object's chemical composition.

The powerful telescope recently examined a pair of planets called "hot Jupiters" because they are similar to the giant gaseous world in our solar system but travel in orbits much closer to their stars. While more than 200 planets have been discovered outside our solar system, these two are among only nine that can be analyzed in this way.

One planet, designated HD 189733b, is slightly larger than Jupiter and lies 370 trillion miles away in the constellation Vulpecula. The other, HD 209458b, is about one-third larger than Jupiter and sits 904 trillion miles away in the constellation Pegasus - a distance so vast it takes light from the planet 150 years to reach Earth.

Scientists were stunned when the Spitzer telescope failed to detect water in the atmosphere of either world. What it found instead raised new questions about the planet in the Pegasus constellation.

"We see sand-like silicate dust and evidence of carbon-based molecules that are essentially what you get when you burn stuff," said Joseph Harrington, a physics professor at the University of Central Florida who is a member of one of three research teams involved in the discovery. There is speculation among some scientists that dusty, high-altitude clouds unlike anything found in our solar system could be making water in the planet's atmosphere hard to detect.

The broader goal of finding life on faraway worlds has been given a boost by the discoveries, which were announced yesterday and will be published in today's edition of the journal Nature.

"What we found was not at all what we expected," said Jeremy Richardson, a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "The technique that we have developed could one day be used to detect life on worlds beyond the solar system."

Michael Cabbage writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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