There's another planet out there, and it's surprisingly Earth-like
It's the strongest evidence yet that other solar systems have traits similar to our own.
As the Hubble Space Telescope navigates the farthest reaches of solar systems foreign and familiar, it sometimes stumbles across something unexpected; such as, say, a planet that's bigger than Jupiter, glowing with water and hot enough to boil metal.
That's the latest reveal from Hubble, a telescope managed by NASA and the European Space Agency that's been in operation since 1990. But somehow, it hadn't happened upon this massive planetary discovery until now.
As such, the mere size of the so-called WASP-121b is pretty remarkable, but that's actually not the most remarkable thing about it. What makes this finding really stand out is that it appears to have a stratosphere, similar to that of our own planet. The kind that increases its temperature with higher altitudes.
It's the strongest evidence to date that planets outside our solar system – called exoplanets – could have characteristics similar to Earth's.
The discovery was made by an international team of scientists from the U.S., the U.K., France, Israel and Switzerland. Some of these same researchers, including Israeli astronomer and University of Massachusetts professor Ofer Cohen, were involved in research earlier this summer on a newly discovered planet called Proxima b. That planet was found to be inhospitable to life for one reason: it had no functional atmosphere.
The investigation of WASP-121b, however, reveals that planets in other solar systems can, indeed, have an atmosphere.
"This result is exciting because it shows that a common trait of most of the atmospheres in our solar system – a warm stratosphere – also can be found in exoplanet atmospheres," said Mark Marley of NASA's Ames Research Center in California, who co-authored the research. "We can now compare processes in exoplanet atmospheres with the same processes that happen under different sets of conditions in our own solar system."
So, you're presumably wondering, now what? What do we do with this out-of-this-world information?
Study it some more, of course.
"The emission of light from water means the temperature is increasing with height," said Tiffany Kataria, study co-author based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We're excited to explore at what longitudes this behavior persists with upcoming Hubble observations."
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