- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The first “sniffs of air” of two huge far-away planets reveal that they seem to be missing water, a surprising finding amid weather unlike any planets in our solar system with blast furnace gusts amid supersonic winds.

The absence of water in the atmospheres of both these Jupiter-sized gaseous bodies upsets one of the most basic assumptions of astronomy.

One of the researchers, Harvard University astronomy professor David Charbonneau, called the planets “very different beasts unlike any other planets in the solar system.”

So far, scientists have found 213 planets outside our solar system they are called exoplanets. But only eight or nine are in the right orbit and location for the type of study reported by three teams using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

The closest of the two planets studied, HD 189733b, is 360 trillion miles from Earth in the constellation Vulpecula. The other planet, HD 209458b, is about 900 trillion miles away in the constellation Pegasus and it has a strange cloud of fine silicate particles. Two different research teams studied it.

The two suns the planets orbit closely have hydrogen and oxygen, the stable building blocks of water. The planets’ atmospheres examined for the first time using light spectra to determine the air’s chemical composition are supposed to be made up of the same thing water.

“We had expected this tremendous signature of water and it wasn’t there,” said Carl Grillmair of the California Institute of Technology and Spitzer Science Center. He and Mr. Charbonneau studied the closer of the two planets, and their work is being published online in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Our own solar system has two planets without water in the atmosphere, Mr. Grillmair noted: Mercury, which doesn’t have an atmosphere, and Venus, which is a different type of planet from the huge gaseous ones that would be expected to have the components of water in the air.

But consider the atmosphere on the second of the two exoplanets, the one 900 trillion miles away: “Weather today on 209458 is hot, dry, probably cloudy with a chance of wind,” study team leader Mark Swain of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab said yesterday.

How hot? Try 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. How windy? Somewhere between 500 and 2,000 mph.

Another research team found indications that the atmosphere has grains of silicon-oxygen compounds. That team, led by L. Jeremy Richardson of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, is reporting its research in today’s issue of Nature.

Mr. Swain called the results “a very important stepping stone for our ultimate goal of characterizing planets around other stars where life could exist.”


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