Scientists reported this week that a Neptune-size planet has traces of water in its atmosphere. The planet is an exoplanet, sitting outside of the solar system, and is actually the smallest of its kind to have water vapor traces – even in its atmosphere.
The planet is called HAT –P – 11b, and it sits roughly 124 light-years away from Earth. Many larger planets have had their atmospheres successfully analyzed, but this is the first planet of this size to be examined successfully.
Scientists have conceded that water molecules are the easiest to observe from the distance we’re at, and really the only tangible way to gather physical evidence about the planets we observe. HAT –P -11b is comprised of 90% hydrogen. This Neptune-size planet orbits the sun every five days and reaches insanely hot temperatures – compared to Earth. 1,120 degrees Fahrenheit is a temperature reading that scientists have seen the planet reach.
Larger, Jupiter-sized planets have been getting studied for years. However, the smaller nature of these Neptune-sized planets offer a unique challenge, and additional information, since scientists are often looking to observe planets that could potentially share some features with Earth.
This most-recent study that yielded the results from the Neptune-sized planet – involved four other exoplanets. However, the results were lackluster – at best and featured a lot of nothing – according to scientists.
The scientists did point out that we don’t lack the knowledge or even technology to observe on these small exoplanets. However, the challenge really becomes battling things like clouds. In the case of this most-recent study, clouds were to blame for a broad portion of the challenges.
The technology is there to study the things that the scientists want to study – in this case – but unfortunately, nature and space don’t always cooperate.
However, the scientists have studied a number of planets who have similar atmospheres to HAT-P-11b. One in particular, GJ436b, actually brought a lot of similar features in size, radius, composition, etc. and in one scientists estimation would be similar to the “Earth-Venus twin pair.”
This is only the first step in really digging into these smaller exoplanets. Now that positive results have been yielded, everyone can certainly expect to see more of this in terms of moving forward in the space community. While the results might not have been earth-shattering this time, there definitely are major positives to take away from this study, and as the study team put – “This was just one of the beginning brush strokes to painting the full picture of how planets, as well as ourselves, were formed.”