drupal statistics module

Machines Like Us

Astronomers unveil atmospheres of far away planets

Saturday, 16 April 2011

This artist concept shows the planetary system called HD 189733, located 63 light-years away in the constellation Velpecula. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The discovery and characterisation of a planet with an Earth-like atmosphere is a step closer thanks to a new observation technique, developed by astronomers at NASA and UCL, using surprisingly small ground-based telescopes.

Published in Nature (3 February 2010), astronomers have identified organic molecules in the atmosphere of a Jupiter sized planet nearly 63 light years away. Rather than using a high performance space telescope, like Hubble, they have made the breakthrough using a relatively small 30 year-old telescope in Hawaii.

The surprising new finding was made using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea, Hawaii – a 3 meter diameter telescope that ranks just 40th among ground based instruments.

The new technique promises to speed up the work of studying planet atmospheres by enabling many other ground-based telescopes to focus on known exoplanets - planets that orbit stars beyond our solar system.

“The final goal is to observe the atmosphere of a planet with the capability to support life. We’re not there yet, but this technique will make it much easier and faster to characterise exoplanet atmospheres,” said Dr Giovanna Tinetti, co-author of the study at UCL Department of Physics and Astronomy.

"This work suggests we may be able to detect organic molecules in the atmospheres of terrestrial planets with existing instruments very soon,” said Dr. Mark Swain, astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and lead author of the paper.