March 19, 2008

Life on other planets?

Posted: 02:08 PM ET

Scientists working with the Hubble Space Telescope have identified large quantities of the organic chemical methane as well as water on a planet orbiting a distant star.

Artist's Rendering. Source: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Now that in-and-of-itself is not proof that life exists there. In fact, researchers say it almost certainly DOESN'T because the planet is orbiting very close to its "sun" and it therefore is much too hot (1700 degrees Fahrenheit) to support life.

But the new findings, published in this week's edition of the journal "Nature," do show that orbiting telescopes like Hubble and it's yet-to-be-launched successor called the James Webb Space Telescope can detect organic chemicals on far-off worlds. And on some of those (one in a thousand? million? billion?) the conditions may be right to support life.

Will we ever find one? Impossible to say. But the tools are there to begin the search.

The Jupiter-sized planet in question is called HD189733b, and is orbiting a star about 63 light years away from our solar system in the constellation Vulpecula.

Astronomers have found nearly 300 of these so-called "extrasolar" planets since the first one was confirmed in 1995. NASA has drawn up plans for space-based telescopes like the Terrestrial Planet Finder and the Space Interferometry Mission to specifically search for Earth-like planets outside our solar system. At this point, both of those programs have been postponed indefinitely due to budget issues.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Astrobiology • extrasolar planets • Space

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