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Astronomers discover evidence of water in atmosphere of distant planet

According to a newly published paper, a team of Canadian and American astronomers say they discovered evidence of water vapor in the atmosphere of a distant planet, the first such finding recorded outside of our solar system.

The observations, contained in a piece published on the journal Science‘s website, relies on a method that may someday be used to test the air of other Earth-like planets, the researchers said.

The findings detail a planet with an atmosphere of water and carbon monoxide, although astronomers say the data collected shows weaker than expected concentrations of the elements. The astronomers say the signature is weaker than would be expected if the planet shared the composition of its parent star, which they suggest may provide insight into how the planet evolved over time.

Relying the OSIRIS instrument of the Keck II telescope of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, astronomers discovered a chemical cocktail, including a cloudy atmosphere that appears to contain water vapor and carbon monoxide. The elements are thought to be the result of the formation of the planet in a localized gaseous disk tens of millions of years ago. As the gas cooled over time, water and ice began to form, depleting the remaining gas of oxygen. The  ice and solids collected, which created the inner core of the planet, subsequently attracted surrounding gas to form the massive gas giants we see today, according to astronomers.

“With this level of detail,” said study co-author Travis Barman, an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory. “[W]e can compare the amount of carbon to the amount of oxygen present in the atmosphere, and this chemical mix provides clues as to how the planetary system formed.”

It remains unclear how the finding will impact the star system’s potential for life. HR 8799c, a gas giant,  is far too large to support life, although astronomers say evidence of water vapor is the latest indication the universe may be littered with the basic elements for supporting life.

The team examined in great detail the atmosphere of the giant planet HR 8799c, located 130 light-years away from our solar system.  The planet, which was discovered by the team of astronomers in 2008 and 2010, has received a good deal of attention from astronomers. The planet, which is seven times as massive as Jupiter, is a unique situation in that  astronomers are able to observe the light of the giant planet as it orbit takes it outside the glare of its parent star. According to astronomers, HR 8799c orbits its parent star in a similar pattern to that of Pluto.

While the finding is widely seen as significant, it is not the first time atmospheres of distant planets have been observed.  Using an instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, a team of astronomers were able to detect elements in an nearby planet.

Most importantly, the planet’s composition may allow astronomers to better understand the early days of planet formation. According to researchers, the planet’s composition could assist astronomers in explaining planet formation theories, including the role played by core accretion and gravitational instability.