Astronomers Detect First Organic Molecule on an Exoplanet

A team of astronomers led by Mark Swain of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., has made the first detection ever of an organic molecule in the atmosphere of a Jupiter-sized planet orbiting another star. The breakthrough, made with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, is an important step in eventually identifying signs of life on a planet outside our solar system.

The molecule found by Hubble is methane, which under the right circumstances can play a key role in prebiotic chemistry – the chemical reactions considered necessary to form life as we know it.

This discovery proves that Hubble and upcoming space missions, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, can detect organic molecules on planets around other stars by using spectroscopy, which splits light into its components to reveal the “fingerprints” of various chemicals.

“This is a crucial stepping stone to eventually characterizing prebiotic molecules on planets where life could exist,” said Swain, lead author of a paper appearing in the March 20 issue of Nature.

The discovery comes after extensive observations made in May 2007 with Hubble’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer. It also confirms the existence of water molecules in the planet’s atmosphere, a discovery made by NASA’s Spitzer Space telescope.

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