February 22, 2024

The discovery of water vapor in the atmosphere of the smallest planet outside our solar system, observed by the Hubble Space Telescope, is a significant milestone in astronomy. This landmark finding brings us closer to understanding and characterizing planets that resemble Earth.

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NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have announced that planet GJ 9827d, which is approximately twice the size of Earth, is in orbit around a red dwarf star located 97 light-years away in the Pisces constellation.

The group responsible for the discovery is currently investigating two possibilities: one being that the planet is a “mini-Neptune” with an atmosphere abundant in hydrogen and water, and the other being a warmer variant of Jupiter’s moon Europa, harboring twice the amount of water as Earth beneath its surface.

Bjorn Benneke, a researcher from the Universite de Montreal, stated that GJ 9827d, a planet, might consist of equal parts water and rock.

Additionally, he mentioned the presence of a substantial amount of water vapor surrounding a smaller rocky entity. He further emphasized that the detection of the atmosphere of such a diminutive planet had previously been challenging, but they are gradually making progress in this area.

During a span of three years, Hubble conducted observations of the planet during 11 occurrences known as transients, wherein it passed in front of its star.

Throughout these transients, the planet’s atmosphere acted as a filter for the starlight, enabling astronomers to utilize Hubble’s instruments for the examination of color patterns (wavelengths). This analysis unveiled the distinct signature of water molecules.

Despite having a water-rich atmosphere, GJ 9827d’s scorching temperature of 800 degrees Fahrenheit (425 Celsius), similar to that of Venus, renders it an inhospitable and steamy world. Nonetheless, the recent Hubble discovery opens up possibilities for further exploration of GJ 9827d and similar planets. The James Webb Space Telescope, with its advanced infrared imaging capabilities, can aid in the search for additional atmospheric molecules such as carbon dioxide and methane.

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