Saturday, March 22, 2008

Organic Material Detected in Atmosphere of Distant Planet

For the first time -- in a star system far, far away -- astronomers detected organic molecules in the atmosphere of planet, reports the NY Times.

It was scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that discovered methane in the atmosphere of a very hot planet, known as “HD 189733b,” somewhere in the constellation Vulpecula. According to the Times, “Under the right conditions, water can combine with organic chemicals like methane to make amino acids, the building blocks of life as we know it.”

Could there be life on HD189733b? (Doesn’t that name sound like the model number of an LCD TV?) Not likely. The planet’s too hot and big (the artist conception of the planet accompanying the Times piece makes it look like a gas giant). But for the first time, we’re sure there’s organic material outside of our solar system. “The big news is that we were able to do this at all,” said one JPL insider.

To detect the methane, scientists studied the spectrum of light around the planet as it crossed between its star and our line of site here on earth (an event know to astronomers as a “transit”). What they found: “Gases in the planet’s atmosphere absorbed the starlight in a band of wavelengths characteristic of methane, causing dips in the combined spectrum of star and planet.”

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.