Hubble Telescope Finds New Exoplanet With a Water-Filled Atmosphere
In the continued search to find funky, weird exoplanets across the stars, scientists from the UK's University of Exeter have used the Hubble space telescope and the infrared Spitzer telescope to examine a distant world that actually, like the Earth, is wrapped in at atmosphere that contains a great deal of water vapor.
This is a phenomenal discovery, as it's an indication that the planet, named WASP-39b, has a water cycle similar to the one found on Earth, likely including clouds and rain. There is a catch, though - while WASP-39b may have a lot of water, it's not otherwise very similar to Earth. More than anything, this distant exoplanet resembles Saturn, as a big ball of thick gas, albeit without the pretty rings.
While it's 700 lightyears away from us, WASP-39b is unusually close to its sun considering how much water is present in the planet's atmosphere. Its year lasts just four Earth days, as WASP-39b is twenty times closer to its star than Earth is to our sun, and temperatures on the planet's day side reach up to 1,430 degrees Fahrenheit.
This has earned it the nickname of "hot Saturn", and scientists speculate that it may have originally formed a lot further away from its star, before being buffeted by icy debris until it eventually moved in a lot closer.
The Hubble and @NASAspitzer space telescopes have found evidence of water in the atmosphere of a hot, bloated, Saturn-mass #exoplanet some 700 light-years away (illustrated below): https://t.co/0RrB1TwTrw pic.twitter.com/aHysKlHNk2— Hubble (@NASAHubble) March 1, 2018
According to David Sing, co-author on the paper that details this new discovery, WASP-39b can teach us a lot about the process by which various planets form. He said the following in a press release from NASA:
While the James Webb telescope is still a year or more from launch, the scientists involved in this research are eager to get a closer look at WASP-39b using the new, more advanced tool, in order to figure out more about how the water cycle plays out in practice on the distant world.
One thing is certain: despite the presence of water in the planet's atmosphere, the current conditions on WASP-39b definitely wouldn't produce life forms - at least, none that function anything like those on our own planet. That said, if the prevailing theory of the planet's creation is true, then WASP-39b might have once been a more suitable breeding ground for simple life forms before the planet spiraled closer to its star and began to heat up.
If nothing else, this discovery is proof that, sooner or later, we'll have to find another planet that shares all of Earth's more unique characteristics.
What we'll find on that planet remains to be seen, so for now, all we can do is keep looking.