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New method reveals atmosphere on 'Hot Jupiter' (+video)

Using a ground-based telescope to probe exoplanet atmospheres, which were visible only when illuminated by stars, scientists say they hope to study much cooler planets.

By Charles Q. ChoiSPACE.com / June 27, 2012

Artist's impression of the alien planet Tau Bootis b, whose atmosphere was probed using a new method.

L. Calçada/ESO/

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The atmospheres of alien planets can now be probed even if they are not illuminated by stars directly behind them, astronomers say.

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One of the first exoplanets to be discovered, Tau Boötis b, has revealed a chilly shell 'hot Jupiter' type atmosphere. Europe's Very Large Telescope (VLT) caught the scene, here also embellished as an artist's impression.
Credit: ESO/L. Calçada / Mash Mix: SPACE.com
Original Music by Mark C. Petersen, Loch Ness Productions

A new method used to scan the atmosphere of a distant "hot Jupiter" world could eventually reveal insights about many distant alien planets — including, perhaps, whether or not they support life, the researchers added.

"If we could detect gases like oxygen, these could point to biological activity," study co-author Ignas Snellen, an astronomer at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told SPACE.com.

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A new look at exoplanet atmospheres

Scientists have analyzed the atmospheres of exoplanets before, but only when those worlds passed in front of their parent stars, much like Venus did during its recent transit of the sun.

The change in the light of a star as it streams through an exoplanet's atmosphere can reveal details about the air's composition. Different molecules absorb light in distinct ways, resulting in patterns known as spectra that allow scientists to identify what they are. [Gallery: The Strangest Alien Planets]

Now scientists have for the first time analyzed the atmosphere of an exoplanet that, like most such alien worlds, does not pass between its star and Earth.

The planet in question is Tau Boötis b, one of the first exoplanets to be discovered back in 1996 and one of the nearest exoplanets to Earth known, at about 51 light-years away. The world is a "hot Jupiter" — a gas giant orbiting very close to its parent star.

The exoplanet's parent star, Tau Boötis, is easily visible with the naked eye, but the planet is not. Up to now, Tau Boötis b was only detectable through its gravitational pull on the star.

An international team caught the faint infrared glow from Tau Boötis b using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT).

"We were able to study the spectrum of the system in much more detail than has been possible before," study lead author Matteo Brogi, of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, said in a statement. "Only about 0.01 percent of the light we see comes from the planet, and the rest from the star, so this was not easy."

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