Astronomers do it Again: Find Organic Molecules Around Gas Planet (w/ Video)

Oct 20, 2009 by Mary Beth Murrill
The basic chemistry for life has been detected in a second hot gas planet, HD 209458b, depicted in this artist's concept.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Peering far beyond our solar system, NASA researchers have detected the basic chemistry for life in a second hot gas planet, advancing astronomers toward the goal of being able to characterize planets where life could exist. The planet is not habitable but it has the same chemistry that, if found around a rocky planet in the future, could indicate the presence of life.

"It's the second planet outside our solar system in which water, methane and have been found, which are potentially important for biological processes in habitable ," said researcher Mark Swain of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "Detecting organic compounds in two exoplanets now raises the possibility that it will become commonplace to find planets with molecules that may be tied to life."

Swain and his co-investigators used data from two of NASA's orbiting Great Observatories, the and Spitzer Space Telescope, to study HD 209458b, a hot, gaseous giant planet bigger than Jupiter that orbits a sun-like star about 150 light years away in the constellation Pegasus. The new finding follows their breakthrough discovery in December 2008 of carbon dioxide around another hot, Jupiter-size planet, HD 189733b. Earlier Hubble and Spitzer observations of that planet had also revealed water vapor and methane.

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The detections were made through spectroscopy, which splits light into its components to reveal the distinctive spectral signatures of different chemicals. Data from Hubble's near-infrared camera and multi-object spectrometer revealed the presence of the molecules, and data from Spitzer's photometer and measured their amounts.

"This demonstrates that we can detect the molecules that matter for life processes," said Swain. Astronomers can now begin comparing the two planetary atmospheres for differences and similarities. For example, the relative amounts of water and carbon dioxide in the two planets is similar, but HD 209458b shows a greater abundance of methane than HD 189733b. "The high methane abundance is telling us something," said Swain. "It could mean there was something special about the formation of this planet."

Other large, hot Jupiter-type planets can be characterized and compared using existing instruments, Swain said. This work will lay the groundwork for the type of analysis astronomers eventually will need to perform in shortlisting any promising rocky Earth-like planets where the signatures of organic chemicals might indicate the presence of life.

Rocky worlds are expected to be found by NASA's Kepler mission, which launched earlier this year, but astronomers believe we are a decade or so away from being able to detect any chemical signs of life on such a body.

If and when such Earth-like planets are found in the future, "the detection of organic compounds will not necessarily mean there's on a planet, because there are other ways to generate such molecules," Swain said. "If we detect organic chemicals on a rocky, Earth-like planet, we will want to understand enough about the planet to rule out non-life processes that could have led to those chemicals being there."

"These objects are too far away to send probes to, so the only way we're ever going to learn anything about them is to point telescopes at them. Spectroscopy provides a powerful tool to determine their chemistry and dynamics."

More information:

You can follow the history of planet hunting from science fiction to science fact with NASA's PlanetQuest Historic Timeline at planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/timeline/ .

More information about exoplanets and NASA's planet-finding program is at planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov .

Provided by JPL/NASA (news : web)

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User comments : 8

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Birthmark
not rated yet Oct 20, 2009
How long will it be before we can travel 150 light years in a well mannered time frame? I'm hoping by the end of the century or at least the very beginning of the 22nd.
funnyalien
not rated yet Oct 20, 2009
Just a word of caution people, if in case in the future NASA scientists figure out that finding habitable planet is indeed rare, then a planet suited for life just like our own is a very valuable commodity in the universe! then it will be too late to figure out how to undo our messages announcing our presence here.
bhiestand
not rated yet Oct 21, 2009
Just a word of caution people, if in case in the future NASA scientists figure out that finding habitable planet is indeed rare, then a planet suited for life just like our own is a very valuable commodity in the universe! then it will be too late to figure out how to undo our messages announcing our presence here.

What are they going to do, come take our jobs? :)
RAL
Oct 21, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
omatumr
1 / 5 (1) Oct 21, 2009
Hydrogen is element #1; Carbon is element #6

Both of these essential elements of life exist in the outer layers of stars and in planets that form from the outer layers of supernovae.

Earth, ordinary meteorites and other rocky planets are made primarily of elements from the deep interior of supernovae - Fe, O, Ni, Si, S, Mg and Ca.

Compare a cross section of the onion-skin model of a pre-supernova star with that of the solar system.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
barakn
1 / 5 (1) Oct 21, 2009
I see Omatumor has conveniently excluded Neon from his list of "deep interior" elements, even though it is typically listed as occurring in the same layer as O and Mg. Amazing what he'll do with information that doesn't fit his preconceived notions.
omatumr
3 / 5 (1) Oct 21, 2009
Neon (element #10) is neither an essential element of life nor a major component of Earth, ordinary meteorites and other rocky planets.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
omatumr
1 / 5 (1) Oct 22, 2009
I see Omatumor has conveniently excluded Neon . . . . .


If you want to know more about element #10, Neon, google "The Neon Alphabet Game." There you will learn that the dozen different types of Neon alphabetically labeled as Ne-A, Be-B, Ne-C, Ne-D, Ne-E, etc are all products of simple mass fractionation in the Sun.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
barakn
3 / 5 (2) Oct 22, 2009
Neon (element #10) is neither an essential element of life nor a major component of Earth, ordinary meteorites and other rocky planets.
l


Yes, that was my point, and it went right over your head. If neon was in one of the innermost layers of the supernova explosion, the layers you claim formed the terrestrial planets, then where is all the neon? Its absence suggests that there was another force at work in addition to or instead of your supernova hypothesis. This other mechanism is obviously the temperature and phase dependent sorting of elements and chemical compounds that occurs in a system with an energetic central heat source and a cold periphery, such as a protoplanetary disk surrounding a protostar. Your supernova hypothesis is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the current structure of the solar system.

It's funny that you mention mass fractionation of neon, as that is actually part of the temperature and phase dependent sorting I mentioned.

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