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NASA: Space Telescopes Finds Water Vapor and Clear Skies on Neptune-Sized Planet

24 Sep 2014, 2:22 pm

(A Neptune-size planet with a clear atmosphere is shown crossing in front of its star in this artist’s depiction. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists at NASA have discovered an exoplanet — which is any planet that orbits a star outside of our solar system — that has clear skies and water vapor. Although it may seem like a pretty routine discovery for the world’s premier space agency, quite the contrary, it’s a big leap forward for modern astronomy.

Why? John Grunsfeld, assistant administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, explains “This discovery is a significant milepost on the road to eventually analyzing the atmospheric composition of smaller, rocky planets more like Earth.”

The planet, called HAT-P-11b, is about the size of Neptune or nearly four times the size of Earth. HAT-P-11b is located in the Cygnus constellation, more than 120 light-years from Earth. The planet is warm, with a rock-like surface and a gas laden atmosphere.

How did NASA make the discovery?

NASA explains how they made the determination water was on the planet, “[Researchers] used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and a technique called transmission spectroscopy, in which a planet is observed as it crosses in front of its parent star. Starlight filters through the rim of the planet’s atmosphere. If molecules like water vapor are present, they absorb some of the starlight, leaving distinct signatures in the light that reaches our telescopes.”

The findings from Hubble were then confirmed by two other space telescopes in NASA’s arsenal — the Kepler and Spitzer telescopes. Using visible light images from Kepler and infrared analysis from Spitzer, scientists were able to confirm the readings from the Hubble Telescope.

For more on this most recent NASA discovery check out the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s website.

Meteorologist Alan Raymond

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