Scientists have compiled an atmospheric map of the exoplanet

(ORDO NEWS) — Researchers have created a three-dimensional map of the atmosphere of an exoplanet located 322 light-years from Earth. The resulting 3D map of swirling gases surrounding a Jupiter-like exoplanet is not only a first astronomical achievement, but should help in the search for Earth-like exoplanets capable of supporting extraterrestrial life.

Since astronomers discovered the first such alien world in 1995, about 5,000 exoplanets have been identified. Most of these alien worlds are gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn, making them significantly less likely to support life as we know it. However, understanding how these planets evolve is still vital and could help in the search for new Earth-like worlds.

Now, a research team from Lund University in Sweden has targeted a Jupiter-sized planet outside our solar system to see if they can successfully measure an exoplanet’s atmosphere, resulting in the first-ever 3D map of an exoplanet’s atmosphere.

Exoplanet WASP-189b, chosen for study by the Lund University research team, differs from Earth in much the same way as thousands of previously discovered exoplanets. For example, it is very close to its host star, so its planetary year is equivalent to only 2.7 Earth days. This proximity to the star also makes the planet’s daytime temperature a scorching 3,200 degrees Celsius, far too extreme for even the most extreme types of known life.

“We used a high-resolution spectrograph to collect light from the host star at a time when the light was also passing by the gaseous envelope of the exoplanet,” Bibiana Prynot, a doctoral student in the Department of Astronomy at Lund University who led the study, explains in a press release. “After extracting the relevant parts of the spectrum, we were able to associate at least nine variants of known substances with the atmosphere of WASP-189b.”

Specifically, Prynot and her team found iron, titanium, chromium, vanadium, magnesium, manganese, and the hard-to-detect titanium oxide in the atmosphere. These various elements were then mapped, showing that “WASP-189b has a layered atmosphere in which three-dimensional chemistry, thermal effects, and wind-like dynamics play an important role.”

“In the past, analyzing the atmospheres of this type of exoplanet was only possible with 1D models,” Prynot said. “In our study, we are paving the way for the use of high-resolution spectrographs to achieve a much deeper understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.”

Publishing their work in the journal Nature Astronomy, the Lund researchers acknowledge that this particular planet is most likely not home to extraterrestrial life, but also note that the ability to characterize, quantify, and even map an exoplanet’s atmosphere will give those looking for life beyond Earth, a much-needed tool in the arsenal of life hunters.

“People often ask me if I think my research is relevant to the search for life in other parts of the universe,” Prynot says. “My answer is always yes. This type of research is the first step in this quest.”

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