Astronomers discover helium in exoplanet atmosphere for first time ever

For the first time ever, scientists have discovered helium in an exoplanet's atmosphere.
By Tyler MacDonald | May 04, 2018
An international team of astronomers has discovered helium in exoplanet atmosphere for the first time. Led by University of Exeter PhD student Jessica Spake, the team used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 to locate the chemical element in the exoplanet WASP-107b.

"Helium is the second-most common element in the Universe after hydrogen," said Spake. "It is also one of the main constituents of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in our Solar System. However, up until now helium had not been detected on exoplanets despite searches for it."

The team analyzed the infrared spectrum of the WASP-107b atmosphere, which differs from previous detections of extended exoplanet atmospheres that strictly examined optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

"The strong signal from helium we measured demonstrates a new technique to study upper layers of exoplanet atmospheres in a wider range of planets," Spake said. "Current methods, which use ultraviolet light, are limited to the closest exoplanets. We know there is helium in the Earth's upper atmosphere and this new technique may help us to detect atmospheres around Earth-sized exoplanets which is very difficult with current technology."

The amount of helium detected in WASP-107b's atmosphere is so large that its upper atmosphere extends far into space likely tens of thousands of kilometers. This means that the recent detection marks the first time that such an atmosphere has been discovered at infrared wavelengths.

David Sing, co-author of the study, believes that the new data will pave the way for higher quality exoplanet atmosphere analyses.

"Our new method, along with future telescopes such as the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, will allow us to analyze atmospheres of exoplanets in far greater detail than ever before," he said.

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