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Water has been detected in a planet’s atmosphere 179 light years away

Artist's illustration of HR 8799c. It is about seven times larger than Jupiter and scientists have confirmed that they have discovered water in it's atmosphere. Credits : WM KECK Observatory / Adam Makarenko / C. Alvarez

A team of researchers using new apparatus installed in an observatory in Keck, Hawaii  have announced they have detected water in a planet’s atmosphere 179 light years from Earth. 

Figuring out the chemical composition of an exoplanet is a complicated task as it’s light is obscured by it’s parent star. But with the evolution of technology, we are now able to achieve more than before.  This is notably the case when researchers discovered molecules of water in a planet’s atmosphere 179 light years from Earth.  The details of their study were published in The Astronomical Journal.

Water and not methane

The star system of HR 8799 and it’s planets HR 8799 b, c, d and e, are found in the Pegasus constellation which is visible in the northern hemisphere.  HR 8799 c which was seen the first time in 2008, was the focus of researchers observations.  This ball of gas which is 7 times bigger than Jupiter revolves around it’s sun about every 200 years.  First it was observed through the lens and then more precise analysis revealed that water was present in it’s atmosphere also confirming the absence of methane.

constellation map of Pegasus
Credits : Wikimedia Commons/ Orthogaffe

Detecting “digital traces »

These new observations rely on two technological advancements: adaptive optics which counteracts the fuzzy effects of the lands atmosphere and Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec).  These new technologies were installed in Keck observatory at an altitude of 4,145 metres on Mont Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii.  The apparatus allowed researchers to reveal digital traces of the molecules present in exoplanets’ atmospheres.

This is exactly the type of technology we want to use in our future research for signs of life on a planet that resembles earth,” explains Dimitri Mawet from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and leading author of the study. We are not there yet but we are getting closer.  With Keck, we can already learn more about the physical and dynamic aspects of these giant exoplanets which are unlike anything in our our own Solar System.”

Ability to find even more planets out there

We hope that there are more surprises like this in store for us in the future.  In the years to come, astronomers can rely on a new apparatus that will be installed at the observatory.  It is called the KPIC (Keck Planet Imager and Characterizer) which will use adaptive optics and spectroscopy but an even better resolution.  With this gem of technology, astronomers will be able to image planets with even weaker glimmers than 8799 c.


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