Under the right circumstances methane can play a key role in prebiotic chemistry – the chemical reactions considered necessary to form life as we know it. Although methane has been detected on most of the planets in our Solar System, this is the first time any organic molecule has been detected on a world orbiting another star.
Artist’s impression of the extrasolar planet HD 189733b, now known to have methane and water. Astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to detect methane — the first organic molecule found on an extrasolar planet. Hubble also confirmed the presence of water vapour in the Jupiter-size planet’s atmosphere, a discovery made in 2007 with the help of the Spitzer Space Telescope. They made the finding by studying how light from the host star filters through the planet’s atmosphere.
This discovery proves that Hubble and upcoming space missions, such as the NASA/ESA/CSA 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 characterising prebiotic molecules on planets where life could exist”, said Mark Swain of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, USA, who led the team that made the discovery. Swain is lead author of a paper in the 20 March issue of Nature.
The discovery comes after extensive observations made in May 2007 with Hubble’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS). 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, HD 189733b, now known to have methane and water vapour is located 63 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula, the little fox. HD 189733b, a “hot Jupiter”-type extrasolar planet, is so close to its parent star that it takes just over two days to complete an orbit. “Hot Jupiters” 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 900 degrees C, about the same temperature as the melting point of silver.
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. According to co-author Giovanna Tinetti from the University College London and the European Space Agency: “Water alone could not explain all the spectral features observed. The additional contribution of methane is necessary to fit the Hubble data”.
Methane, composed of carbon and hydrogen, is one of the main components of natural gas, a petroleum product. On Earth, methane is produced by a variety of sources: natural sources such as termites, the oceans and wetland environments, but also from livestock and manmade sources like waste landfills and as a by-product of energy generation. Tinetti is however quick to rule out any biological origin of the methane found on HD 189733b. “The planet’s atmosphere is far too hot for even the hardiest life to survive — at least the kind of life we know from Earth. It’s highly unlikely that cows could survive here!”
The astronomers were surprised to find that the planet has more methane than predicted by conventional models for “hot Jupiters”. This type of hot planet should have much more carbon monoxide than methane but HD 189733b doesn’t. Tinetti explains: “A sensible explanation is that the Hubble observations were more sensitive to the dark night side of this planet where the atmosphere is slightly colder and the photochemical mechanisms responsible for methane destruction are less efficient than on the day side”.
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.
“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.
Lars Christensen | alfa
Neutron star merger directly observed for the first time
17.10.2017 | University of Maryland
Breaking: the first light from two neutron stars merging
17.10.2017 | American Association for the Advancement of Science
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
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