Water Vapor Found on Distant Planet

Astronomers take incredibly close look at far-away gas giant

By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff

Posted Mar 15, 2013 5:31 PM CDT

(Newser) – Scientists say they've spotted water vapor and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere of a huge gas planet some 130 light-years from Earth, NBC News reports. That doesn't mean life exists there—the planet, HR 8799c, is way too hot and gassy—but it does highlight our growing ability to learn about far-away worlds. "The big surprise was actually that we could do it," says the co-author of the study, published in Science. "We can actually see the individual lines of these molecules."

Astronomers used a telescope in Hawaii to conduct the scan, the most detailed ever of an alien planet's atmosphere. One day they could do the same with smaller, earth-sized planets, they say, if the telescope is planted on a dedicated spacecraft. Another neat finding: The authors say planets in the system formed as Earth did, by accruing the dust and gas that surrounds infant stars. But not everyone buys that interpretation: "Theorists are clever," says a dubious astrophysicist. "It's hard to paint them into a corner."

An image of the HR 8799 planetary system.
An image of the HR 8799 planetary system.   (RC-HIA / C. Marois / Keck Observatory)
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