Penn State researchers help detect water on distant planet

mdawson@centredaily.comFebruary 26, 2014 

Penn State scientists were on a team of researchers that has detected water in the atmosphere of a large planet outside the Earth’s solar system, the university announced this week.

Researcher Chad Bender said he and his colleagues discovered the water by detecting the infrared radiation in the atmosphere of the planet, which is as massive as Jupiter and orbits the star Tau Boötis. Bender said he hopes the method used can be applied to other planets outside the solar system.

“Our detection of water in the atmosphere of Tau Boötis is important because it helps us understand how these exotic hot-Jupiter planets form and evolve,” Bender said. “It also demonstrates the effectiveness of our new technique.”

The researchers detailed their discovery in a scientific paper published on The Astrophysical Journal Letters’ website this week. The lead author was Alexandra Lockwood, a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology.

Researchers collected data at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and they compared the molecular makeup of water to the light spectrum the planet gives off and confirmed the atmosphere included water vapor.

Previously, scientists have detected water vapor on other planets with special circumstances, such as an orbit that takes it in front of its star when seen from Earth. Other detections have come on planets that are far from their host stars.

The infrared-radiation technique will enable scientists to study planets that don’t fit into those categories, Bender said. His team will take a look at planets near the sun that had not been previously studied because it was either too difficult or impossible to measure their atmospheres.

The detection of water in the atmosphere of the planet was part of a larger project for Bender. He’s working to characterize the atmospheres of hot, massive planets like Jupiter that are outside the Earth’s solar system.

The team includes a Penn State graduate student, Alexander Richert.

In addition to Penn State and Cal Tech, co-authors on the scientific paper are at the Naval Research Laboratory, University of Arizona and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

For more information and to read the paper, visit 2014-news/Bender2-2014.

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT.

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