Instead of Alien Life, Astronomers Just Found Water on This Giant Exoplanet

Despite millions of light-years between us and most exoplanets, we’re not only getting better at spotting them, we’re now able to figure out what they’re made of with better accuracy. And though scientists at the Keck Observatory would love to find biosignatures of alien life, they may have found the next-best thing: water in the atmosphere of a distant gas giant called HR 8799 c.

HR 8799 c is roughly seven times the size of Jupiter, and was expected to contain a whole lot of methane. Instead, scientists found a distinct lack of methane and a surprising amount of water in the planet’s atmosphere. According to Ji Wang, the lead author of the new study: “Right now, with Keck, we can already learn about the physics and dynamics of these giant exotic planets, which are nothing like our own solar system planets. We are now more certain about the lack of methane in this planet. ” 

The key to their findings was a method called “adaptive optics,” which has unlocked other major astronomical discoveries, like the fact that many supermassive black holes are undergoing “hidden mergers” in galaxy collisions across the cosmos. According to the ESO, adaptive optics are “[s]ophisticated, deformable mirrors controlled by computers [that] can correct in real-time for the distortion caused by the turbulence of the Earth’s atmosphere.” 

In other words, scientists get around the problems caused by Earth’s atmosphere by installing a satellite in orbit, but adaptive optics allows them to capture incredibly sharp images with ground-based telescopes. The images taken of HR 8799 c are a major step for imaging exoplanets and studying their composition, which can help scientists search for life. “This type of technology is exactly what we want to use in the future to look for signs of life on an Earth-like planet,” said Dimitri Mawet, one of the authors on the study. “We aren’t there yet but we are marching ahead.”

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