Water Vapor Detected In Alien Planet's Atmosphere
Researchers have detected water vapor in the atmosphere on one of the first alien planets ever to be discovered. Tau Boötis b was discovered way back in 1996 when the notion of planet-hunting was in its infancy, but with advances in technology come advances in discovery and these latest findings could shed some exciting light on our galaxy.
Known as a 'Hot Jupiter' because of its gaseous make-up and close proximity to its host star, Tau Boötis b is situated a mere 51 light years away from Earth and remains one of the closest exoplanets ever to be discovered. Since its discovery, scientists have been analyzing the gas giant's atmosphere, studying the hypnotic glow given off by the interactions of various molecules. Now though, the introduction of a new infrared technique has allowed for the detection of water vapor molecules in the planet's atmosphere, a finding that gives scientists confidence that the technique can reveal the presence of water on planets across our galaxy.
Water has been detected on alien planets in the past, but this was only possible when the planet passed between its host star and Earth. The discovery of water vapor on Tau Boötis b was made without this transit occurring, which could change the game when it comes to water detection.
"By developing new techniques that examine the atmospheres of these planets in infrared light, it's becoming possible to examine many other worlds for water vapor in their atmospheres," said SETI's Seth Shostack to Huffington Post. That would clue us in to how common it is for planets to have oceans, where chemicals can slosh around, meet up, and maybe - just maybe - produce some biology. Looking for water on exoplanets is the next step in learning whether life is unusual or as common as crabgrass."
Expect announcements like these to become even more common with the launch of future technologies such as the James Webb Space Telescope that will be able to apply similar techniques but for planets that are cooler and potentially orbiting within their host star's habitable zone. Soon it would seem that we won't be satisfied with just detecting these planets, we'll actually be able to start checking boxes on our list of criteria for habitability.