Scientists spotted water in the atmosphere of 51 Pegasi b, one of the first exoplanets ever been discovered. It is around 50 light years away – so we can call it a “nearby” exoplanet – and it is in the constellation of Pegasus.
51 Pegasi b is not marked a breakthrough in astronomical research for the first time: back in 1995, it was the first exoplanet to be discovered orbiting a main-sequence star. The first confirmed exoplanet discovery came in 1992, when several terrestrial-mass planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12.
A team led by Dr. Jayne Birkby of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics observed 51 Pegasi b and its host star for 4 hours using the Very Large Telescope(1) in Chile. As the planet shifted away from and then towards Earth, its light shifted towards redder and then bluer wavelengths, thanks to the Doppler effect(2). The team analysed its spectrum and spotted a watery signature.
The discovery is really eciting, since it is also an important step towards detecting water molecules in smaller, more habitable worlds, like Proxima Centauri b, discovered in 2016, which is only 4.37 light years away.
Despite having water in its atmosphere, unfortunately, 51 Pegasi b cannot host life forms. It is also the first-discovered exoplanet for a class of planets called hot Jupiters, a class of exoplanets that are physically similar to Jupiter (gas giants), and orbit their stars from very short distance.
- The Very Large Telescope (VLT) is a telescope facility operated by the European Southern Observatory on Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. The VLT consists of four individual telescopes, each with a primary mirror 8.2 m across, which are generally used separately but can be used together to achieve very high angular resolution.
- Doppler effect: an increase (or decrease) in the frequency of sound, light, or other waves as the source and observer move towards (or away from) each other. The effect causes the sudden change in pitch noticeable in a passing siren, as well as the red shift seen by astronomers. It is named after the Austrian physicist Christian Doppler (1803-1853), who proposed it in 1842 in Prague.