In the far away Boötes constellation, there exists a massive planet known as tau Boötis b. It’s a world unlike anything that exists in our solar system. The closest comparison we have is Jupiter, but tau Boötis b is thought to weigh in at eight and a half times the mass of our solar system’s largest planet. Termed a “hot-Jupiter”, it also exists in an aptly-named “torch orbit,” seven times closer to its star than Mercury is to our Sun.
Yet it is here that astronomers from Penn State University have detected the presence of water. Using a new technique, the team was able to detect water in the planet’s atmosphere, likely in the form of water vapor. Penn State research associate Chad Bender believes the importance of the discovery is two-fold:
"Our detection of water in the atmosphere of tau Boötes b is important because it helps us understand how these exotic hot-Jupiter planets form and evolve. It also demonstrates the effectiveness of our new technique, which detects the infrared radiation in the atmospheres of these planets."
This new technique could aid researchers in determining whether or not a number of planets closer to our solar system than tau Boötis b also harbor water. Until this new technique was developed, researchers could only search for water on planets that either passed directly between their host star and the Earth or were far enough away from their star’s light to give us reliable images. Thanks to this new technique, we can not only theorize on the possibility of water on potentially-habitable exoplanets, but we can actually detect its presence in their atmospheres. With the construction of new high-powered telescopes and this new technique, we could be closer than ever to finding extraterrestrial life.
Via Penn State