Astronomers have spotted water vapor and evidence of exotic clouds in the atmosphere of an alien planet [HAT-P-26b]… about 430 light-years away from Earth. space.com
How’d they do that!?
Sing, Wakeford and their colleagues analyzed observations made by NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes when HAT-P-26b crossed its parent star’s face from the telescopes’ perspectives. The planet’s atmosphere filtered out certain wavelengths of starlight during these “transits,” allowing the study team to identify some of the molecules swirling in HAT-P-26b’s air.
I have to wonder how many photons that passed through HAT-P-26b’s atmosphere made it to Earth – to capture and analyze that tiny amount of data is awesome. The planet’s atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium, but it’s the trace elements that are most fascinating. The planet doesn’t fit the pattern we see in our own solar system regarding planet size, distance for the star, and composition.
There’s so much to learn, and our tiny sample size of one solar system isn’t nearly enough to figure it all out. If you’re wondering what difference it makes – well, it won’t change what I eat for breakfast tomorrow. I’ve never regretted learning something, even if it didn’t put a penny in my pocket. If we don’t look up at the stars how will we ever get out of the mud?
Here’s one description based on HAT-P-26b’s atmospheric composition to marvel at as you look up.
This would be a very alien sky… you’d see a kind of scattery, washed-out, gray sky.
Of course, when working on the edge of detection it’s easy to get things wrong. But a staggering amount of data is rolling in, many researchers are busy, and even more amazing telescopes are in the works – hypotheses will turn into theories.
It’s only getting better.
PS: Oddly enough, I had trouble finding an easy source to tell me where in Earth’s sky HAT-P-26b’s star is located – not that I expect to see it with my eyes, but it seems like a fun thing to know. I think I found the coordinates: RA = 14:12:37.5, DE = +04:03:36. Those are the coordinates I used to get the image above. And according to my trusty W. Tirion Sky Atlas 2000.0, that puts it in the constellation of Virgo. But I’m a bit rusty – can anyone confirm or correct me?