The chemical signature of methane in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting a star 63 light-years away has been detected by the Hubble Space Telescope. In conjunction with the Spitzer Space Telescope, these orbiting telescopes have brought a string of dramatic results about the character of exoplanet’s over the last two years. These are a planets outside our solar system. Scientists hope to find planets similar to Earth or planets with pre-life characteristics.

This is exciting for the exploration of life outside our solar system because it is the first detection of an organic molecule around an exoplanet. Confirmations were also made regarding water in the atmosphere based on previous observations.

Extrasolar organic molecules

The exoplanet, known as HD189733b, is a ‘hot Jovian’ type, meaning conditions are too harsh for life. The star HD189733 is shown in the photo at right by the green arrow. It is located at a distance of about half the diameter of our moon from the M27 “Dumbbell” planetary nebulae, seen further to the right in the picture.

Mark Swain, a researcher on the project stated, “We are really excited about this detection because it is a dress rehearsal for future searches for life on more hospitable planets.”

The methane was detected by its chemical signature in the near-infrared transmission spectrum of photons passing from the planet’s sun through the edge of the planet’s atmosphere. The researchers hope that other instruments, including the James Webb Space Telescope planned to come online in about five years, will be able to do similar analysis on other planets, even more distant ones. Details of the methane observations were published this week in the journal Nature.

An interview with Mark Swain, Deputy Director for JPL Exoplanet Center of Excellence can be found here> Mark Swain interview discussing exoplanet findings by Hubble.

Photo by Daniel Jaroschik