MAY 12, 2017 9:15 AM PDT

Astronomers Find Water Vapor in the Atmosphere of Distant Neptune-Like Exoplanet

WRITTEN BY: Anthony Bouchard

While studying distant exoplanets from other systems, astronomers sometimes come across surprising discoveries about them.

Among one of the latest is the presence of water vapor alongside hydrogen and helium in the atmosphere of a warm Neptune-like exoplanet dubbed HAT-P-26b, which exists some 420 light years away from Earth where it orbits its host star so closely that it completes an orbit after almost four Earth days.

Related: Neptune-like exoplanets are the most common type of exoplanet found

The planet itself has almost the same mass as Neptune does, but in terms of size, Neptune has a radius of 25,000 kilometers while HAT-P-26b has a radius of 40,000. That said, there is a difference in makeup.

An artist's impression of HAT-P-26b while it transits its host star - both the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope appear as silhouettes in the bottom right corner.

Image Credit: NASA/GSFC

The water vapor discovery was made by examining data collected by both the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope, while the planet was transiting its host star’s surface, which dimmed the light of the star and illuminated its atmosphere revealing the molecules it contained. The detailed findings appear in the journal Science.

“We’re looking at the change in the amount of light from the star, like a mosquito flying in front of a streetlamp,” says Wakeford. “Different things in the atmosphere will block the light in different ways.”

Worthy of note, while it’s not uncommon for water vapor to be discovered in the atmospheres of planets in our solar system, it’s not too often that astronomers discover water vapor in the atmospheres of exoplanets with a size and mass of this caliber.

Related: Scientists wish they could see the rocky core of Neptune

Although it contains traces of water vapor in its atmosphere, it’s unlikely that HAT-P-26b supports life being that it’s a gassy planet. That said, while it’s not significant in the search for life, knowing that there’s water vapor in the exoplanet’s atmosphere can help astronomers determine an accurate understanding of what other chemicals might be there.

Hubble has already provided information that suggests there are plenty of heavy elements in HAT-P-26b’s atmosphere, but determining exactly what all of them are takes time and endless studying. More importantly, it tells us about the exoplanet’s metallicity, a mesure of heavier elements, which can be used to determine when and where the exoplanet formed.

Interestingly, HAT-P-26b has almost 20 times less metallicity than Neptune does, which leaves experts with the implication that it must’ve formed closer to its host star than where it resides now. Instead, the exoplanet has almost the same metallicity as Jupiter and Saturn do, both of which are believed to have formed closer to our Sun during the early Solar System.

Despite the fact that this is just a theory, the researchers point out that the most important part of this research is to improve our efficiency at spotting water vapor in exoplanet atmospheres.

It’s not always easy, but there may come a day when we spot just the right exoplanet that has the proper conditions to support life, and when we find water vapor, that’ll definitely raise some eyebrows. Perhaps the James Webb Space Telescope will help revolutionize how we find this valuable data.

Source: Ars Technica, Popular Science

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
You May Also Like
OCT 27, 2020
Space & Astronomy
Researchers Discover a Planet That "Shouldn't Exist"
OCT 27, 2020
Researchers Discover a Planet That "Shouldn't Exist"
Neptune was once known as a gas giant, but after scientists found that it was composed of heavy and volatile elements it ...
NOV 07, 2020
Space & Astronomy
Scientists Detect Origin of Fast Radio Burst in Milky Way
NOV 07, 2020
Scientists Detect Origin of Fast Radio Burst in Milky Way
Scientists have identified a burst of cosmic radio waves- intense flashes of radio emission that last just a few millise ...
JAN 06, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Settling the Debate Over the Age of the Universe
JAN 06, 2021
Settling the Debate Over the Age of the Universe
Astronomers have used powerful telescopes high in the Atacama desert to evaluate estimates of the age of the universe. T ...
FEB 10, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Do Salt and Melting Ice Cause Landslides on Mars?
FEB 10, 2021
Do Salt and Melting Ice Cause Landslides on Mars?
Recurrent slope lineae (RSL) are dark flows that extend downhill on Mars to form sandy patterns on its surface. Research ...
FEB 20, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Mars Perseverance Rover Gets Ready to Find Life on Mars
FEB 20, 2021
Mars Perseverance Rover Gets Ready to Find Life on Mars
NASA scientists have confirmed that their car-sized Perseverance Mars rover is 'healthy' following its arrival o ...
APR 08, 2021
Space & Astronomy
The Stardust That Made Us & Our Planet
APR 08, 2021
The Stardust That Made Us & Our Planet
You may know that the human body is made up of elements that almost all originated in stars, and many of those elements ...
Loading Comments...