Ignas Snellen discovers poisonous superstorm on alien world

A poisonous ‘superstorm’ of carbon monoxide gas on an alien world over 150 light years away has been discovered by an international team of astronomers. We spoke with lead scientist Ignas Snellen of the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands.

Ignas Snellen It’s very different from the normal hurricanes that we’re used to here on Earth. This is much more of a global wind, global event that encompasses the whole planet. The carbon monoxide gas as a whole is moving at about 5,000 miles an hour.

Snellen and his colleagues used 2 techniques similar to Dopplar radar – commonly used on to track storms here on Earth – to track the superstorm on the alien planet HD209458B, known as ‘Osiris.’ They used the Very Large Telescope in Chile to gather light from Osiris, and analyzed it using a powerful spectrometer. The methods used to find this alien superstorm, said Snellen, could help find life on other planets.

Ignas Snellen: What we really would like to do now is to do this kind of research to observe atmospheres of Earth-like planets. Now this will be very interesting, because using the same methods as we are doing now, we could find out whether there actually could be life on these planets. Now you have to realize that this is not easy for us to do. That’s at least a hundred times more difficult than the things that we do now.

Dr. Snellen added that the discovery of carbon on planet Osiris tells much about its origins.

Ignas Snellen: What we see in, for example, Jupiter in our own solar system, is that it contains more carbon than the sun. And that could tell us something about how Jupiter has formed. Because the way that astrophysicists think about how planets form is that when the sun was formed and started to shine, there was a large disc of gas and dust. And from that large disc, within that disc, clumps formed. Very early on in the solar system Jupiter formed. That disc contains significantly more carbon than the gas clouds the sun was formed out of, which is the reason that Jupiter has a factor of a few more carbon based carbon molecules than we see in the sun. By measuring – for the first time – this carbon monoxide absorption from the strength of the absorption, we can estimate how much carbon monoxide is in the atmosphere of HD209458B. And assuming that the carbon that we measure in this carbon monoxide molecules is all the carbon there actually is, we already see that the carbon to hydrogen ratio is also significantly higher than that of the sun. So that could indicate that the way that this planet has formed is similar as Jupiter. But of course, that is something that has to be looked into in much more detail.

The big hunt, said Snellen, is for to find life on other planets.

Ignas Snellen: Of course this way of observing and the kind of research that we do now is very interesting. We learn more about Jupiter-type planets, so-called gas giants. These are much bigger planets than the Earth. They contain mainly hydrogen gas. The Earth itself is much smaller. It fits in about a thousand time inside of Jupiter, and even more in this planet HD209458B. And now we start to learn a lot more about these gas giant atmospheres, like what kind of gases and molecules are there, how hot is it there, what about the circulation on these planets. But what is in particular interesting in understanding the atmospheres of Earth-like or super-Earths planets, is in particular oxygen and ozone. And that’s because on Earth, we only have oxygen because it’s constantly produced by the living organisms with photosynthesis of plants. Now if there would be some kind of global disaster, and all the life on Earth would go extinct, including planet life and that which lives in the oceans, then all the oxygen that is in the atmosphere would quickly disappear. Therefore, finding actual oxygen in the atmosphere of an Earth-like planet would be extremely exciting, because that may tell us that something is constantly making this oxygen, and that could well be life.

July 5, 2010

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