by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Dec 9, 2008
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has discovered both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere of a distant planet, in a key step for finding extraterrestrial life, the space agency said Tuesday.
Detecting organic compounds that can be a by-product of life processes on an Earth-like body could one day "provide the first evidence of life beyond our planet," NASA said in a statement.
The discovery was made on a Jupiter-size planet 63 light years away from Earth that is too hot for life, and is all gas and liquid.
"We're not closer to discovering life on this particular planet," admitted Ray Villard of the Space Telescope Science Institute.
"But it has the mix of chemistry that on the right planet could be a biotracer for life," he said.
Scientists have studied the planet intensively, finding the organic molecule methane as well as water vapor, Villard added.
The carbon dioxide and monoxide were detected by Mark Swain, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, using Hubble to study infrared light emitted from the planet.
"The carbon dioxide is the main reason for the excitement because, under the right circumstances, it could have a connection to biological activity as it does on Earth," Swain said.
"The very fact we are able to detect it and estimate its abundance is significant for the long-term effort of characterizing planets to find out what they are made of and if they could be a possible host for life."
Launched 18 years ago, Hubble revolutionized astronomy with the ability to peer deep into the universe, beaming back dazzling images free of the distortions of Earth's atmosphere.
Orbiting 575 kilometers (360 miles) above the ground, Hubble has enabled scientists to better measure the age and origin of the universe, observe distant supernovas, and identify and study bodies in and outside the solar system.
A light year is the distance that light travels in a vacuum in one year, or approximately 5.88 trillion miles (9.46 trillion kilometers).
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