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Scientists use Keck data to detect water vapor on distant planet

February 26, 2014 - 4:18pm

Using data gathered at the W. M. Keck Observatory, California Institute of Technology astronomers have developed a new technique for planetary scientists to detect the presence of water on distant planets.

Finding evidence of water is a big deal, particularly in exoplanets, those planets outside our solar system, Alexandra Lockwood, who wrote about the discovery in this week’s Astrophysical Journal Letters, told West Hawaii Today on Tuesday.

Scientists have previously detected water vapor on other planets, however, such detection required specific circumstances such as a planet transiting in front of or being sufficiently far away from its host star.

Lockwood used the radial velocity technique combined with spectroscopy, an analysis of the light’s spectrum to analyze molecules, which each emit a different wavelength of light. She used data of extrasolar planet tau Boo b collected by Keck’s Near Infrared Echelle Spectrograph (NIRSPEC) instrument.

The technique currently is limited to “hot Jupiter” planets, gas giants, specifically ones that orbit near their host star.

Lockwood also used the method to analyze the mass of planets. The method can provide a planet’s “true mass” rather than an estimate of its minimum mass helping scientists as they study planet formation and the evolution of individual planets’ planetary system.

Check out the Thursday, Feb. 27, edition of West Hawaii Today or visit for full details on the discovery, including comments from Lockwood.

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