Natural Science

Scientists see remote planet’s make-up as clues to the universe’s diversity.

Astronomers have detected water vapor in the atmosphere of a remote alien planet called HAT-P-26b.

The researchers also determined that HAT-P-26b's sky is graced with exotic clouds and that the planet’s atmosphere is dominated by hydrogen and helium to a much greater degree than Neptune or Uranus, which are the planet’s closest counterparts in our own solar system.

"This exciting new discovery shows that there is a lot more diversity in the atmospheres of these exoplanets than we have previously thought," said David Sing, astrophysics professor at the UK’s University of Exeter. Sing served as co-leader of a study of HAT-P-26b that was published on May 11 in the journal Science.

Situated 430 light-years away from Earth, HAT-P-26b circles close to its star, completing a full orbit every 4.2 Earth days. This suggests that HAT-P-26b and its star are tidally locked, showing the same face to each other at all times.

Sing and his fellow researchers analyzed data from NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes from HAT-P-26b’s path across the face of its parent star. The atmosphere of the exoplanet filtered out soe wavelengths and let others through – thus allowing earthbound researchers to analyze the elements making up the planet’s atmosphere. That’s how the researchers detected water vapor.

The data also revealed cloud formations very unlike those on earth. The astronomers believe the clouds are probably made of disodium sulfide, not water vapor.

Data from the study tells astronomers much about the planet’s formation and evolution.