Last year, astronomers discovered a remarkable planet orbiting another star: it has a mass and radius that puts it in the “super-Earth” category — meaning it’s more like the Earth than a giant Jupiter-like planet. Today, it has been announced that astronomers have been able to analyze the atmosphere of the planet (the very first time this has ever been accomplished for a super-Earth), and what they found is astonishing: the air of the planet is either shrouded in thick haze, or it’s loaded with water vapor… in other words, steam!
Astronomers observed the planet when it passed in front of the star, analyzing the light very carefully. As starlight passes through the planet’s atmosphere, certain colors of it get absorbed, and these are like fingerprints that can be used to figure out the atmospheric composition. Most models predicted a heavy hydrogen content, but the observations indicate none is there! That means either there are thick layers of haze in the upper atmosphere of the planet, obscuring any hydrogen below them — much like Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan, blocking the view lower down — or there is a vast amount of water in the planet’s air. And at a temperature of 200° C, that water would be in the form of vapor. In other words, steam.
For the full scoop on GJ 1214b, located about 42 light years from here, check out Phil’s entire post at Bad Astronomy.
80beats: Found: An Exoplanet From Another Galaxy
80beats: Astronomers Predict a Bonanza of Earth-Sized Exoplanets
80beats: Um… That “Goldilocks” Exoplanet May Not Exist
Discoblog: So, How Long Would It Take to Travel to That Exciting New Exoplanet?
DISCOVER: How Long Until We Find a Second Earth?