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Astronomers Detect First Organic Molecule on an Exoplanet

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posted on Mar, 26 2008 @ 08:40 AM
Check this out!
Astronomers Detect First Organic Molecule on an Exoplanet
March 19, 2008

A team of astronomers led by Mark Swain of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., has made the first detection ever of an organic molecule in the atmosphere of a Jupiter-sized planet orbiting another star. The breakthrough, made with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, is an important step in eventually identifying signs of life on a planet outside our solar system.

The molecule found by Hubble is methane, which under the right circumstances can play a key role in prebiotic chemistry - the chemical reactions considered necessary to form life as we know it.

This discovery proves that Hubble and upcoming space missions, such as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, can detect organic molecules on planets around other stars by using spectroscopy, which splits light into its components to reveal the "fingerprints" of various chemicals.

"This is a crucial stepping stone to eventually characterizing prebiotic molecules on planets where life could exist," said Swain, lead author of a paper appearing in the March 20 issue of Nature.

The discovery comes after extensive observations made in May 2007 with Hubble's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer. It also confirms the existence of water molecules in the planet's atmosphere, a discovery made originally by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope in 2007. "With this observation there is no question whether there is water or not - water is present," said Swain.

The planet now known to have methane and water is located 63 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula. Called HD 189733b, the planet is so massive and so hot it is considered an unlikely host for life. HD 189733b, dubbed a "hot Jupiter," is so close to its parent star it takes just over two days to complete an orbit. These objects are the size of Jupiter but orbit closer to their stars than the tiny innermost planet Mercury in our solar system. HD 189733b's atmosphere swelters at 1700 degrees Fahrenheit, about the same temperature as the melting point of silver.

Though the star-hugger planet is too hot for life as we know it, "this observation is proof that spectroscopy can eventually be done on a cooler and potentially habitable Earth-sized planet orbiting a dimmer red dwarf-type star," Swain said. The ultimate goal of studies like these is to identify prebiotic molecules in the atmospheres of planets in the "habitable zones" around other stars, where temperatures are right for water to remain liquid rather than freeze or evaporate away.

The observations were made as the planet HD 189733b passed in front of its parent star in what astronomers call a transit. As the light from the star passed briefly through the atmosphere along the edge of the planet, the gases in the atmosphere imprinted their unique signatures on the starlight from the star HD 189733.

The astronomers were surprised to find that the planet has more methane than predicted by conventional models for "hot Jupiters." "This indicates we don't really understand exoplanet atmospheres yet," said Swain.

"These measurements are an important step to our ultimate goal of determining the conditions, such as temperature, pressure, winds, clouds, etc., and the chemistry on planets where life could exist. Infrared spectroscopy is really the key to these studies because it is best matched to detecting molecules," said Swain.

More information on the discovery and artist's concepts are online at: . Swain's co-authors on the paper include Gautam Vasisht of JPL and Giovanna Tinetti of University College, London.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency and is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The Space Telescope Science Institute

posted on Mar, 26 2008 @ 01:10 PM
reply to post by saturnus1962

Interesting thread saturnus1962!

What I find amazing though is when they find methane on planets in our own solar system, they just blow it off. I can't see why methane would be more important somewhere else if your to judge NASA by their previous statements.
Curious behavior indeed!

posted on Mar, 26 2008 @ 02:05 PM
This one's even better! They found water vapor.

posted on Mar, 26 2008 @ 04:45 PM
reply to post by InfaRedMan

You raise a great point. And before I go any further, I just want to take a moment to say that I've read a lot of your posts here at ATS in the past few days, and I'm very impressed with the insight you bring.

Back to methane... (yep the stuff that makes us occasionally stinky)
It's interesting to note that while methane can form (according to the current theories) as a component within an atmosphere on a world with an atmosphere, it quickly dissapates, and eventually becomes undetectable.

That is, it becomes undetectable without some sort of organic life (think cows as an earth example) replenishing the supply.

This is one of the most contentious points in the 'Is There Life On Mars' debate. We see in Mars, a planet without a stable dynamo at its core (the liquid spinning iron at the center of 'active' worlds with vulcanism) so on Mars at least, we're not looking at Methane released into the atmosphere as a byproduct of volcanoes, etc. So scientists, (including NASA) currently don't have a viable explanation for how high levels of methane are able to remain in the atmosphere of Mars, without some sort of life form putting it out as a by-product of energy production.

I'm not sure how this argument pertains to this new extra-solar planet, but the experiment to prove that we can detect methane in the atmosphere of a planet around another star marks an enormous mile-stone in the ability of our species to 'see' what's out there.

Methane in an atmosphere (of any world) has always been a red flag in my opinion, that there may well be something on the surface we'd like to investigate further.

Great thread!


posted on Mar, 26 2008 @ 10:30 PM
reply to post by WitnessFromAfar

Cheers WitnessFromAfar! Your posts are very interesting indeed!

As I understand it (and I may be wrong); Decomposing plant matter also produces Methane... Makes me wonder if there is plant life on Mars too, perhaps a microscopic form off algae if not something much larger?

Even if Methane is produced by volcanism alone on some of these Planets, I would argue that the Planet itself is 'alive' which then brings forth the possibility that lifeforms do or can eventually exist on said Planets. Unlike the 'dead' ones which are just a big mass of iron/silica etc.

I believe that eventually science will need to re-index the way they classify the members of our solar system and beyond.. give em time. They are weighed down by the ball and chain of indoctrinated belief systems and tend to drag their feet! Frustrating I know, but I guess we laymen aren't castrated by the scientific community for such presuppositions.

posted on Mar, 27 2008 @ 01:54 AM
Thanks Greyfox: just copied first sentences:

Researchers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered large amounts of simple organic gases and water vapor in a possible planet-forming region around an infant star, along with evidence that these molecules were created there. They've also found water in the same zone around two other young stars.

By pushing the telescope's capabilities to a new level, astronomers now have a better view of the earliest stages of planetary formation, which may help shed light on the origins of our own solar system and the potential for life to develop in others. John Carr of the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, and Joan Najita of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Tucson, Ariz., developed a new technique using Spitzer's infrared spectrograph to measure and analyze the chemical composition of the gases within protoplanetary disks. These are flattened disks of gas and dust that encircle young stars. Scientists believe they provide the building materials for planets and moons and eventually, over millions of years, evolve into orbiting planetary systems like our own.

"Most of the material within the disks is gas," said Carr, "but until now it has been difficult to study the gas composition in the regions where planets should form. Much more attention has been given to the solid dust particles, which are easier to observe." In their project, Carr and Najita took an in-depth look at the gases in the planet-forming region in the disk around the star AA Tauri. Less than a million years old, AA Tauri is a typical example of a young star with a protoplanetary disk.

With their new procedures, they were able to detect the minute spectral signatures for three simple organic molecules--hydrogen cyanide, acetylene and carbon dioxide--plus water vapor. In addition, they found more of these substances in the disk than are found in the dense interstellar gas called molecular clouds from which the disk originated. "Molecular clouds provide the raw material from which the protoplanetary disks are created," said Carr. "So this is evidence for an active organic chemistry going on within the disk, forming and enhancing these molecules."

Spitzer's infrared spectrograph detected these same organic gases in a protoplanetary disk once before. But the observation was dependent on the star's disk being oriented in just the right way. Now researchers have a new method for studying the primordial mix of gases in the disks of hundreds of young star systems.

Astronomers will be able to fill an important gap--they know that water and organics are abundant in the interstellar medium but not what happens to them after they are incorporated into a disk. "Are these molecules destroyed, preserved or enhanced in the disk?" said Carr. "Now that we can identify these molecules and inventory them, we will have a better understanding of the origins and evolution of the basic building blocks of life--where they come from and how they evolve." Carr and Najita's research results appear in the March 14 issue of Science.

Taking advantage of Spitzer's spectroscopic capabilities, another group of scientists looked for water molecules in the disks around young stars and found them--twice. "This is one of the very few times that water vapor has been directly shown to exist in the inner part of a protoplanetary disk--the most likely place for terrestrial planets to form," said Colette Salyk, a graduate student in geological and planetary sciences at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. She is the lead author on a paper about the results in the March 20 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

CANT WAIT until some alien sticks his head out of the vapor!

posted on Mar, 27 2008 @ 02:10 AM
how come everybody isn't screaming, "this has already been posted here 20 times already!!!!", like they did when i posted this same exact thing?

posted on Mar, 27 2008 @ 02:29 AM
reply to post by FremenBlueEyes


Probably everybody got fed up with reminding OPs that this subject has been posted before?

Anyway it is good that it has been posted before and not too bad that it is posted again. Still there are people who did not see it the first times refeering to the first reactions). I looked for the subject before I posted this tread. But I did not use the Google search so I did not find anything.

Thanks for the tip, I will look better next time

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