Breakthrough in Chile aids search for water on other planets

stronomers have devised a technique to detect water in the atmosphere of planets orbiting distant stars.

Mankind’s search for another planet capable of supporting life received a boost earlier this month when astronomers working in Chile announced a breakthrough in how we search for water on other terrestrial bodies.

Using an infrared spectrograph mounted on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope high up in Chile’s Atacama desert, scientists were able to detect an infrared signature from water on a distant planet.

Located 63 light years from earth, and with temperatures reaching 1500 degrees celsius, the gassy giant known as HD 189733b showed traces of water, confirming experts predictions after earlier research showed traces of carbon monoxide and water in the planet’s atmosphere.

The discovery, made by a team from Leiden University and led by astronomer Jayne Birkby, furthers the quest to discover exoplanets, or planets outside of our Solar System, capable of supporting life. According to NASA, there are 879 confirmed exoplanets and 3,346 candidates that need to be verified as planetary bodies through further study. In a press release, Birkby explained the discovery would help refine this search as it can be used by both telescopes on the ground and those in orbit.

Jesus Otero, president of the Venezuelan Society of Amateur Astronomers, has been actively following the case. He points out that this new technique will also make the process less expensive by furthering the possibility of research using grounded telescopes.

The discovery, he explains, inverts the standard approach to this research.

“What Jayne Birkby and her colleagues at Leiden University did was to reverse the current method of searching for water in exoplanets. Previously, astronomers studied the fluctuation of radiation of the star caused by the gravity of the planet, but Birkby  studied the changes in the planet’s spectrum caused by the star,” Otero wrote in Aztronomia.

Birkby’s team’s discovery is only one of many important breakthroughs made every year by experts based throughout the northern Chile, widely recognised as the world’s premier region for astronomical observation.