It’s a discovery that could increase the odds of discovering life outside of our own solar system.
According to astronomers, the atmosphere of a massive exoplanet contains water vapor and carbon monoxide– two components that may increase the chances that life-giving elements are scattered throughout the universe. Astronomers say the new analysis provides high-resolution data on the chemistry, gravity and atmosphere of one of the largest exoplanets ever discovered.
The planet, known only as HR8799c, is widely seen as having no chance of harboring life of its own. The massive gas giant lies an estimated 130 light-years from Earth and is five to 10 times the mass of Jupiter.
Astronomers were able to gain a glimpse of the planet’s atmosphere by analyzing the planet’s glow. According to astronomers, the planet is both fairly bright and located a fair distance from its star, providing them with the rare combination of factors that allowed them to detail the planet’s composition in great detail. Relying on the OSIRIS instrument at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, astronomers were able to detect the presence of carbon monoxide and oxygen. The analysis is the most detailed ever captured of a planet as large as HR8799c, and the technique could provide astronomers with a way of studying the atmosphere of other planets.
While the focus of the study fell largely on the team’s discovery of water vapor, some astronomers say the planetary system could yield a stunning amount of insight on how our own solar system evolved over time. Astronomers have suggested the planetary system may hold planets similar in size to Earth.
The planet resides in a planetary system that astronomers say could upend several theories on how planets evolve. For one, the massive planet resides at a distance equivalent to Pluto to the sun. Astronomers have long thought planets the size of HR8799c are only able to evolve closer to parent stars. In addition, the planet appears to be fairly young. HR8799c, along with several neighboring planets, are still relatively warm, an indication they recently formed. It could provide astronomers with a chance to watch in real-time how planets evolve over time, eventually forming planets similar to those seen in our own solar system.
Interestingly, astronomers say discovering water vapor in the planet’s atmosphere was far from surprising. The team noted that they expected, based on our current understanding of planet evolution, to discover a much larger quantity of water vapor.
“Although we see a lot of water vapor in the atmosphere of HR 8799c, we actually detect slightly less than we would have expected if the planet had the same composition as its host star,” said study co-author Dr. Quinn Konopacky of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto.
Still, evidence of water vapor in the atmosphere of a far-off planet has many amateur astronomers pondering the possibilities. Just last week, NASA announced that soil collected as part of its Curiosity mission to Mars showed life could have existed on the Red Planet, raising the prospect that elements crucial to life may be more common than first thought.
Researchers say they will continue to train telescopes at the planet and nearby planets. Already some astronomers have proposed studies examining the accuracy of the core accretion model of formation — the key theory of how gas giants form.
The findings are detailed online March 14 in the journal Science.