Life on Distant Planets
Organic Molecules Around Gas Planet
Swain and his colleagues used data from the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope, to study HD 209458b, a hot, gaseous giant planet bigger than Jupiter that orbits a sun-like star about 150 light years away in the constellation Pegasus. The new finding follows their breakthrough discovery in December 2008 of carbon dioxide around another hot, Jupiter-size planet, HD 189733b. Earlier Hubble and Spitzer observations of that planet had also revealed water vapor and methane.
The detections were made through spectroscopy, which splits light into its components to reveal the distinctive spectral signatures of different chemicals. Data from Hubble's near-infrared camera and multi-object spectrometer revealed the presence of the molecules, and data from Spitzer's photometer and infrared spectrometer measured their amounts.
"This demonstrates that we can detect the molecules that matter for life processes," said Swain. Astronomers can now begin comparing the two planetary atmospheres for differences and similarities. For example, the relative amounts of water and carbon dioxide in the two planets is similar, but HD 209458b shows a greater abundance of methane than HD 189733b. "The high methane abundance is telling us something," said Swain. "It could mean there was something special about the formation of this planet."
Other large, hot Jupiter-type planets can be characterized and compared using existing instruments, Swain said. This work will lay the groundwork for the type of analysis astronomers eventually will need to perform in shortlisting any promising rocky Earth-like planets where the signatures of organic chemicals might indicate the presence of life.
Rocky worlds are expected to be found by NASA's Kepler mission, which launched earlier this year, but astronomers believe we are a decade or so away from being able to detect any chemical signs of life on such a body.
If and when such Earth-like planets are found in the future, "the detection of organic compounds will not necessarily mean there's life on a planet, because there are other ways to generate such molecules," Swain said. "If we detect organic chemicals on a rocky, Earth-like planet, we will want to understand enough about the planet to rule out non-life processes that could have led to those chemicals being there."
"These objects are too far away to send probes to, so the only way we're ever going to learn anything about them is to point telescopes at them. Spectroscopy provides a powerful tool to determine their chemistry and dynamics."