On the brink of a new space era with the discovery of water vapor on five distant planets

A new era has begun in space research, according to Planetary Scientist Dr. Avi Mandell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, which is run by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This era will be one of “characterization.”

Dr. Mandell is a leading scientist who helped author one of two important papers newly released that chronicle the Hubble Space Telescope’s recent findings, in which scientists have discovered “water vapor in the atmospheres of five planets beyond the solar system — results that help signal an important change taking place in the hunt for Earth-like planets,” according to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.

New tools and techniques begins with Hubble

This discovery means that the characterization of planets will now expand beyond the previous confines of mass or distance (to include features such as atmosphere). One thing that is helping open up the world of planetary research is better instrumentation. While water has been detected before, new techniques and tools are making a difference.

One of these factors was the addition of a camera to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. The Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), while not specifically designed for the task of measuring atmosphere, has proven to be a real asset, once scientists learned how to refine their use of the WFC3.

Scientists discovered that it was possible to use the camera in a new way (thus allowing them to find water vapor in a distant planet’s atmosphere, as measured by the wavelength the light transmitted as a planet passes its star/sun). As a result, these researchers were able to detect water vapor on planets existing beyond 800 light-years from Earth. Water vapor was also discovered in two other star systems closer to Earth. None of these particular planets, however, is likely to yield life, but water is an important factor (as is carbon) in the location of organic life.

Looking for life beyond the Milky Way

For more than 100 years, scientists have been fascinated with finding life on other planets. Now, with the capability of moving beyond this solar system to new galaxies via the Hubble and other tools, the possibility becomes even greater of finding it.

With the Hubble Telescope and its WFC3, for example, scientists are now able to see atmosphere signatures trillions of miles away. According to Science World Report, this latest research opens the way to determining how much water is present in different types of planets (hotter vs. cooler, for example).

One disadvantage of the Hubble Telescope is that it can only easily determine such atmospheric findings on large planets, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, the good news is that a new telescope will be launched in 2018 (the James Webb Telescope) that will be able to “find water signatures in the atmospheres of smaller, rockier planets more like Earth.”

Thus, a new period of learning and discovery lies ahead. Notes Dr. Mandell, “As we move forward, and as we build better instruments and have a better idea of what we expect to see, we’re only going to discover new and unexpected things.”