5 Very Hot Exoplanets Show Traces of Water, Hubble Finds

Tuesday, 03 Dec 2013 09:17 PM

By Amy Woods

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While the five planets the Hubble Space Telescope detected water on probably cannot sustain life, the find is a step forward for researchers exploring beyond our solar system for signs of alien life.

A story posted Tuesday on NBCNews.com said the NASA device found traces of water in each of the exoplanets' atmospheres. The worlds are the size of Jupiter and have extremely hot surfaces.

The term "exoplanet" refers to a planet outside of our own solar system.

"We're very confident that we see a water signature for multiple planets," said Avi Mandell, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "This work really opens the door for comparing how much water is present in atmospheres on different kinds of exoplanets — for example, hotter versus cooler ones."

Two teams of researchers used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 to survey the atmospheres of the planets known as HD209458b, WASP-12b, WASP-17b, WASP-19b and XO-1b. The most water activity was observed around HD209458b and WASP-17b, according to a NASA study.

"To actually detect the atmosphere of an exoplanet is extraordinarily difficult," said Drake Deming of the University of Maryland, a study author. "But we were able to pull out a very clear signal, and it is water."

Study co-author Heather Knutson, of the California Institute of Technology, said the findings are significant because they mark the first time researchers have analyzed the element of water in the atmospheres of multiple distant planets. The teams learned the water presence is diminished because of the hot planets' dusty, hazy perimeters.

"These studies, combined with other Hubble observations, are showing us that there are a surprisingly large number of systems for which the signal of water is either attenuated or completely absent," Knutson said. "This suggests that cloudy or hazy atmospheres may in fact be rather common for hot Jupiters."

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