Scientists say alien air likely to be thick with water vapor, or haze
The first-ever analysis of the atmosphere of an alien planet classified as a so-called "super-Earth" has revealed a distant world that is likely covered with either water vapor or a thick haze, scientists announced Wednesday.
The exoplanet GJ 1214b, which orbits a star 40 light-years from Earth, offers astronomers a unique chance to study its atmosphere because it passes directly in front of its parent star from Earth's line of sight. That means that once an orbit, the star's light is filtered as it passes through the planet's atmosphere on its way to Earth, taking with it an imprint from the chemicals there. [ Illustration of alien planet GJ 1214b]
"We're trying to get at, what's the main component of this planet's atmosphere?" said lead researcher Jacob Bean, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.
GJ 1214b is called a super-Earth because it is larger than our home planet, but still smaller than gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. It was first discovered in 2009 and has been studied ever since.
A watery super-Earth?
In a comparison with our solar system's inhabitants, GJ 1214b most closely resembles Neptune, Bean said. The alien planet has a radius 2.5 times the size of Earth's and is about 6.5 times the mass of our planet, researchers said.
Astronomers have discovered more than 500 alien planets beyond our solar system so far, with hundreds more expected to be confirmed in upcoming months.
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