Is there life beyond our solar system? An international team of astronomers has taken another step towards answering this eternal question.
New research published Tuesday has uncovered what could be an important clue to understanding whether other unknown planets exist that could be habitable for future generations.
The team, led by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast, discovered the presence of an oxygen-carrying molecule in the atmosphere of WASP-33b, a large exoplanet that orbits a star rather than a sun.
The study’s findings could prove invaluable to future scientists exploring the atmospheres of other small, rocky, undetected planets, such as Earth.
“Although WASP-33b may be a giant planet, these observations are the test bed for next-generation facilities, such as the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Extremely Large European Telescope, in the search for biosignatures on smaller and potentially rocky worlds. , which could provide clues to one of humanity’s oldest questions: “Are we alone?” explained Professor Chris Watson, head of the Exoplanets Group at the Astrophysics Research Center at Queen’s University Belfast and co-author of the study. .
The Thirty Meter Telescope and the Extremely Large European Telescope are the proposed new facilities in Hawaii and Chile’s Atacama Desert, where similar tests could be conducted beyond our solar system in the future.
For this study, the team used the existing high-power Subaru Telescope in Hawaii and a new instrument called Infrared Doppler (IRD) to locate the “spectral fingerprints” of the atoms and molecules emitted by WASP-33b.
A second Earth
The team was able to detect for the first time in the atmosphere of an exoplanet the hydroxyl radical (OH), one of the most dominant oxygen molecules at high temperatures.
This specific molecule is found in the Earth’s atmosphere when water vapor reacts with atomic oxygen, a much purer and more volatile form of the gas we breathe and which makes up 96% of Earth’s lower orbit.
On Earth, OH plays a crucial role in minimizing climate change, acting as a “detergent” by breaking down the accumulation of harmful greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Although WASP-33b is much larger than Earth and has a much warmer atmosphere, the discovery will help refine techniques for detecting OH in the atmosphere of planets much smaller and similar to our own.
“The science of extrasolar planets is relatively new, and a key goal of modern astronomy is to explore the atmospheres of these planets in detail and eventually look for ‘Earth-like’ exoplanets – that is, planets similar to our own. “stated Dr. Neale Gibson, adjunct professor at Trinity College Dublin and a co-author of the research.
“Each new atmospheric species discovered improves our understanding of exoplanets and the techniques needed to study their atmospheres and brings us closer to this goal.”
“These techniques of atmospheric characterization of exoplanets are still only applicable to very hot planets, but we would like to continue developing instruments and techniques that allow us to apply these methods to colder planets and, ultimately, to a second Earth,” he said Dr. Hajime Kawahara, associate professor at the University of Tokyo and co-author of the research.