Sensing the Atmosphere of Distant Planets

Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have been able to detect the chemical signature of methane in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting a star 63 light-years away. It's the first detection of an organic molecule around an exoplanet, a planet outside Earth's solar system.

The observations also confirmed previous work that detected the presence of water in the atmosphere. The planet has conditions too harsh to allow any known type of life.

"We are really excited about this detection because it is a dress rehearsal for future searches for life on more hospitable planets," said Mark Swain, one of the researchers on the project.

The researchers hope that other instruments, including the James Webb Space Telescope planned to come online in five years, will be able to do similar analysis on more distant planets. Details of the methane observations were published in the journal Nature.

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