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Thursday, March 20, 2008

First Organic Molecule on an Exoplanet

First Organic Molecule on an ExoplanetHubble found the tell-tale signature of methane in the atmosphere of the Jupiter-sized extrasolar planet HD 189733b. 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.
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 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), USA, who led the team that made the discovery. Swain is lead author of a paper to be published in tomorrow’s issue of Nature. The discovery comes after extensive observations in May 2007 carried out 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 It also confirms the existence of water molecules in the planet’s atmosphere, a discovery originally made by co-author Giovanna Tinetti in 2007 while she was an ESA fellow at Institute d’Astrophysique de Paris, France, using NASA’s Spitzer space telescope.
“With this observation there is no question whether there is water or not – water is present”, said Swain.

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