If there were any doubt that telescopes with the ability to see beyond our solar system would change everything, this is it. Planet GJ 1132b is 39 light years from earth, yet we are learning a lot about it. It is slightly larger than earth, and revolves around a small, relatively dim sun. Dr. John Southworth of Keele University explains the latest discovery about the planet.
Using a telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, the researchers were able to study the planet by watching how it blocked some of the light of its host star as it passed in front of it.
"It makes the star look a little bit fainter - and it's actually a very good way of finding transiting planets - it's how this one was found," said Dr Southworth.
But different molecules in a planet's atmosphere - if it has one - absorb light in different ways, allowing scientists to look for their chemical signatures when the world transits its star.
The observations of planet GJ 1132b suggest that it has a thick atmosphere containing either steam and/or methane.
"One possibility is that it is a 'water world' with an atmosphere of hot steam," said Dr Southworth.
While the atmosphere is this particular planet is unlikely to sustain life, the bigger takeaway is how its atmosphere was detected, and the possibility that many other planets of similar size and stars could also have an atmosphere. Read more about the discovery at BBC News. -via reddit
(Image credit: Dana Berry/Skyworks Digital/CfA)