5 Exoplanets With Water Detected By Hubble Telescope, But They're Probably Too Hot For Alien Life

By Josh Lieberman on December 3, 2013 6:13 PM EST

hubble telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope has detected water signatures on five Jupiter-like exoplanets. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Hubble Space Telescope has detected water on five planets beyond our solar system. Two research teams discovered faint water signatures on the exoplanets, which are all roughly the size of Jupiter. This is the first research to compare the water profiles of multiple planets.

"We're very confident that we see a water signature for multiple planets," said Avi Mandell, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and lead author on one of the two Astrophysical Journal studies. "This work really opens the door for comparing how much water is present in atmospheres on different kinds of exoplanets, for example hotter versus cooler ones."

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NASA's Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 detected the water signatures by exploring the way the exoplanets' atmospheres absorb light. The telescope looked at a certain range of infrared wavelengths where water would appear if present. The teams then compared the "absorption profiles" for each exoplanet, and despite a haze and dust around each planet, the teams were confident that the signatures they saw did in fact belong to water.

"To actually detect the atmosphere of an exoplanet is extraordinarily difficult. But we were able to pull out a very clear signal, and it is water," said Drake Deming of the University of Maryland in College Park, lead author of the other Astrophysical Journal study.

The five exoplanets are known as WASP-17b, HD209458b, WASP-12b, WASP-19b and XO-1b, and they all orbit nearby stars. WASP-17b and HD209458b showed the strongest water signatures.

Despite each planet showing evidence of water and orbiting a nearby star, it's unlikely that the planets host alien life. They are all "hot Jupiters," planets that are similar to Jupiter but are extremely hot due to the proximity to their star. So there may be water there, but the exoplanets are probably too hot to harbor life.

"These studies, combined with other Hubble observations, are showing us that there are a surprisingly large number of systems for which the signal of water is either attenuated or completely absent," said Heather Knutson of the California Institute of Technology, a co-author on the paper by Deming. "This suggests that cloudy or hazy atmospheres may in fact be rather common for hot Jupiters."

Check out the NASA video below for a great explanation on how astronomers analyze exoplanets' atmospheres to discover what's in them.

READ MORE:

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Water Discovered On Asteroid 170 Light Years Away: Could A Habitable Planet Have Been Found Beyond The Solar System?

Could Japan's Plan For A Solar Power Plant On The Moon Work?

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