Using ground-based telescopes, an international team of astronomers has identified an atmosphere around the exoplanet GJ 1132b. Orbiting a red dwarf star a mere 39 light-years away this world is only about half again as large and massive as Earth, making it the smallest exoplanet to be discovered thus far with an atmosphere.
Unfortunately that likely means that although GJ 1132b is Earth-sized it’s not Earth-like. In order to even be detected in the manner that it was the atmosphere must be extremely thick, making this exoplanet more similar to Venus than Earth.
“An atmosphere that we would think of as Earth-like would be completely invisible to these observations, and to all other currently existing telescopes,” said Tom Louden, a physicist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England (who wasn’t involved in the study.)
Here at Lights In The Dark I typically keep the articles and information to exploration occurring within our Solar System. But there have been amazing advances in the discovery of worlds far beyond our own family of planets and this recent news is quite fascinating: astronomers have spotted what appears to be a large gaseous exoplanet in the process of formation around a star only 335 light-years away — literally one of our own cosmic neighbors! Not only is this serendipitous, but also provides insight to how the planets and moons in our own Solar System may have formed, 4.6 billion years ago.
These days it seems exoplanets are being discovered nearly every week, with “super-Earths”, “hot Jupiters” and “cold Neptunes” being identified (or at least announced as solid candidates) within star systems all around our neck of the galaxy. To top it all off, today the European Southern Observatory announced that an Earth-mass world has now been found orbiting Alpha Centauri B — quite literally the “star next door.”
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Kepler, NASA’s exoplanet hunter extraordinaire, has confirmed the existence of the first planet orbiting two suns, not unlike Luke’s homeworld Tatooine from the Star Wars films! Unlike Tatooine, however, the planet –named Kepler-16b – is a cold Saturn-sized gas giant unlikely to harbor life. Still, it showcases the variety of planetary systems to be discovered and is another step from science fiction to science fact! Read the rest of this entry
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Here’s an enchanting video by the European Southern Observatory highlighting the discoveries of their Very Large Telescope (VLT) array, high in the mountains of the Atacama Desert in Chile. The Atacama is the driest place on Earth, far from the light pollution of major cities, and thus provides the clearest, darkest skies allowing these massive telescopes to peer deep into the universe. The discoveries they have made have been nothing short of groundbreaking.
The skies over the ESO sites in Chile are so dark that on a clear moonless night it is possible to see your shadow cast by the light of the Milky Way alone.
The images are beautiful, the music – James Newton Howard’s score from Lady in the Water – is beautiful, even the telescopes themselves are beautiful, with their futuristic, spartan geometries and perfectly engineered forms. They look like another generation’s science fiction but they’re very much science fact, for this generation and hopefully many more to come.
Also check out ESO’s recent video from their VISTA telescope, zooming into the Sculptor Galaxy…read more on Universe Today.
Originally posted on June 19, 2010.