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Alien planet’s atmosphere contains water and carbon monoxide

Astronomers have found water vapour and carbon monoxide, but no methane, in the atmosphere of an alien planet orbiting a star 129 light years away.

The star, known as HR 8799, is at the centre of the first planetary system beyond our solar system to be imaged directly, in 2008. The star has at least four gas giants orbiting it. One of them, HR 8799c, is seven times the size of Jupiter that orbits at roughly the same distance Pluto does the sun in our own solar system. The light from the HR 8799c can be distinguished from its star, partly due to its distant orbit.

Having the light from the planet itself means that astronomers can see the planet’s atmosphere in unprecedented detail.

Quinn Konopacky, of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Toronto, Canada, and her colleagues used one of the Keck telescopes in Hawaii to get the most detailed look at its light yet. They then analysed that to get the chemical composition of the distant planet’s atmosphere. The data came from 5.5 hours of observations, made up of 33 ten minute exposures.

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