First glimpse of exoplanet atmosphere

Two separate teams of scientists reported Wednesday the first-ever detection from Earth of the atmosphere of planets outside our solar system.

Taken together, the studies open a new frontier in the study of exoplanets, hard-to-detect celestial bodies circling stars beyond our own solar system.

Barely 300 exoplanets — some of which may have conditions similar to those that gave rise to life on Earth — have been identified so far, though astronomers assume that far more are waiting to be discovered.

Up to now, virtually everything known about the atmosphere of exoplanets has come from data collected by the space-based Spitzer infrared telescope.

But Spitzer will soon run out of the cryogens needed to keep its instruments cool, severely limiting its capabilities.

One team spotted a massive planet many times the size of Earth named OGLE-TR-56b, a so-called “hot Jupiter.”

Hot Jupiters are massive planets — many times the size of Earth — that orbit very close to their stars. Because they are so near, they are believed to be hot enough to emit radiation in optical and near-infrared wavelengths that would be visible from Earth.

“The successful recipe is a planet that emits a lot of heat and has little-to-no wind in its atmosphere,” said co-author Mercedes Lozez-Morales of the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C.

In addition, it must be a clear and calm night on Earth in order accurately measure the differences in thermal emissions when the exoplanet is eclipsed as it goes behind the star.

“The eclipse allows us to separate the emissions of the planet from those of the star,” she said in a statement.

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