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Water vapour found on exoplanet

BBC News | July 12, 2007

Astronomers have found water vapour in the atmosphere of a giant planet outside our Solar System.

The detection in the extrasolar planet HD 189733b was made using Nasa's powerful Spitzer Space Telescope and is reported in the journal Nature.

The team looked for the signal of water absorption in starlight poking through the edges of the atmosphere when the planet passed in front of its star.

It is only the second time water has been detected on an exoplanet.

Some researchers suggest that the presence of water could be a feature that is common to all gas giants - the type of planet represented by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in our own Solar System.

HD 189733b orbits a star in the constellation of Vulpecula (the Fox), which is 64 light-years from our Sun.

Although water is a key ingredient for biology, the planet is far too hot to harbour life.

It orbits extremely close to its parent star - more than 30 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun.

As such, temperatures range from a scorching 930C on the dayside of the planet, to a relatively balmy 700 Kelvin on the nightside. This type of planet is known as a "hot Jupiter".

Letting off steam

Giovanna Tinetti, from University College London and colleagues, measured the radius of the hot Jupiter HD 189733b at different wavelengths by tracking how much starlight is blocked by the planet as it crosses in front of its parent star as viewed from Earth.

The planet looked bigger at the wavelength bands that corresponded to water, suggesting water vapour was present in its atmosphere.

"Although HD 189733b is far from being habitable - and actually provides a rather hostile environment - our discovery shows that water might be more common out there than previously thought," said Dr Tinetti.

She added: "Our method can be used in the future to study more 'life-friendly' environments."

Another team of astronomers previously detected water vapour in the atmosphere of a "hot Jupiter" called HD 209458b. The study, by astronomers in the US, was published in the Astrophysical Journal earlier this year.

But some critics have argued that instrument effects in this data could have created the same signal as water vapour.

Life search

Dr Tinetti said: "The 'holy grail' for today's planet hunters is to find an Earth-like planet that also has water in its atmosphere.

"When it happens, that discovery will provide real evidence that planets outside our Solar System might harbour life."

Co-author Sean Carey of the Spitzer Science Center in California commented: "Finding water on this planet implies that other planets in the Universe, possibly even rocky ones, could also have water."

Earlier this year, the Spitzer Space Telescope became the first telescope to analyse, or break apart, the light from two transiting "hot Jupiters", HD 189733b and HD 209458b.

This led to the first-ever "fingerprint", or spectrum, of an exoplanet's light.

 

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