The exoplanet GJ 436b has left scientists confused after defying their assumptions about the composition of its atmosphere.
Neptune-sized planets as hot as 800 Kelvin -- about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- should contain high levels of methane and very little carbon monoxide. Instead, the researchers found 7,000 times less methane than expected and plenty of carbon monoxide.
Using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers measured the dimming of light as GJ 436b passed behind its star and re-emerged. The difference in the two light levels -- measured six times at different infrared wavelengths -- represents the light emitted by the planet itself.
Size comparison of Gliese 436 b with Neptune
(photo credit: wikipedia)
The resulting data were used to determine what molecules make up the planet's atmosphere. MIT Planetary Scientists simulated millions of chemical mixes under the planet's conditions to find the ones that best matched the UCF data.
The findings surprised researchers. "It's like dipping bread into beaten eggs, frying it and getting oatmeal," said UCF Physics Professor Joseph Harrington.
The unexpected result puts GJ 436b in good company. "If you were looking at Earth from afar, you would be surprised to see oxygen gas in its atmosphere," Harrington said. "Oxygen reacts with surface materials and other gases, so you need something that continually produces it."
That something is Earth's abundant plant life. Oxygen is a "biosignature," or an indicator of life, Harrington says.
Using similar techniques to that of the UCF study, astronomers will seek oxygen and other biosignatures on habitable worlds that they soon expect to discover.
Citation: Stevenson et al., 'Possible thermochemical disequilibrium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet GJ 436b', Nature, April 2010, 464, 1161-1164; doi:10.1038/nature09013
- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
- EARTH SCIENCES
- LIFE SCIENCES
- SOCIAL SCIENCES
Subscribe to the newsletter
Stay in touch with the scientific world!
Know Science And Want To Write?
- Greenpeace Says Its GMOs Are Better Than Science's GMOs, Still Hates Golden Rice
- Reduce Prostate Cancer Risk By Sleeping With Lots Of Women - But Not Men
- Homo Floresiensis: Hobbit Species Continues To Provoke Questions About Human Evolution
- Okay With Disgusting Images? You Vote This Way 95 Percent Of The Time
- Supersonic Laser-Propelled Aircraft Get A Step Closer
- Everyone Hates Daylight Savings Time - But It Might Improve Public Health
- This Mid-Term Election Can Have Evolutionary Consequences
- "You, and Greenpeace, are doing just that. GMO is a legal definition, not a science one, and that..."
- "We lack new medicines because the patents expire too quickly and the regulatory burden is too high..."
- "The problem is, American agricultural science cannot be adopted world-wide for the simple reason..."
- "You're quote mining. When it comes to environmental risk, energy emissions from CO2 are back at..."
- "Of course they aren't. These are scientific terms Hank Campbell and you can't just interpret them..."
- Battle of Britain: NGOs and scientists clash over proposal to loosen EU GMO restrictions
- Genetically modified clean energy from bacteria
- Designer babies: You can screen for cystic fibrosis but intelligence is a ways off
- Science as profane: What superstition of 1752 and 2014 share in common
- What’s so “natural” about “natural crop breeding”?
- Worried you have cancer? Take a Google pill!
- Young adults ages 18 to 26 should be viewed as separate subpopulation in policy and research
- University of Tennessee study finds saving lonely species is important for the environment
- Post-operative radiation therapy improves overall survival for patients with resected NSCLC
- Active, biodegradable packaging for oily products
- Medicare costs analysis indicates need to decrease use of biopsies as diagnosis tool for lung cancer