Hubble detected the organic molecule methane within the atmosphere of a large Jupiter-like planet 63 light years away. Although the planet, HD 189744b, is too hot to support life (1260 degrees), it is a breakthrough in that the discovery demonstrates the ability to detect organic molecules on exoplanets spectroscopically.
In the future this method could be used to take measurements of Earth-like planets orbiting within the habitable zones of other stars to look for organic molecules that will help in the search for life.
The space-based telescope was used during five orbits last May to look at the atmosphere of HD 189744b with its Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer. NASA has scheduled a full press conference this Wednesday, the day before the results are due to be published in Nature.
Images will be posted at the start of the press conference Wednesday at http://hubblesite.org/news/2008/11 (unlike the artists impression of a completely unrelated Jupiter-like planet above.)
Scientists Mark R. Swain and Gautam Vasisht, of the Jet PropulsionLaboratoryand U.K. astronomer Giovanna Tinetti, of the Department ofPhysicsand Astronomy at the University College, London, are the authors of the paper.
Hubble Detects Organic Molecule on an Extrasolar Planet [PR Newswire]
NASA's Hubble finds first organic molecule on exoplanet [iTWire]
Image: JPL/NASA artist depiction of Gliese planetary system