Hubble telescope provides first accurate details of climate on exoplanet 40 light years from Earth.
Astronomers used the Hubble Telescope to reveal accurate details of weather conditions on an alien world, and the forecast is for clouds, clouds and more clouds.
The planet, dubbed GJ 1214b, is considered a super-Earth because its mass is somewhere in between that of Earth's and Neptune's. Super-Earths are believed to be the most plentiful type of planet in the Milky Way, although none exists in our own solar system.
A team of scientists led by experts at the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago used the Hubble telescope to determine the weather forecast of GJ 1214b, an exoplanet discovered in 2009.
Past observations of GJ 1214b have suggested the planet's atmosphere consisted of water vapor or another heavy molecule, or high-altitude clouds that prevented observation of the planet's surface.
Published in the journal Nature, recently research leaders, Laura Kreidberg and Jacob Bean, were able to confirm the existence of clouds with data from the Hubble Space Telescope.
The observations used 96 hours of telescope time spread over 11 months, the largest Hubble program ever devoted to studying a single exoplanet, a University of Chicago release said Friday.
Because of its proximity to our solar system - just 40 light-years from Earth - GJ 1214b is the most easily observed super-Earth.
The Hubble observations did not detect a "chemical fingerprint" in the planet's atmosphere, which ruled out a cloudless atmosphere made up of "water vapor, methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide."
The clouds could be made out of potassium, chloride or zinc sulphide at the scorching temperatures of 450 degrees Fahrenheit found on GJ 1214b, the researchers said.
This research was an important step in identifying potentially habitable exoplanets, they added.
"We really pushed the limits of what is possible with Hubble to make this measurement. This advance lays the foundation for characterizing other Earths with similar techniques," said Kreidberg.
"It's very exciting that we can use a telescope like Hubble that was never designed with this in mind, do these kinds of observations with such exquisite precision, and really nail down some property of a small planet orbiting a distant star," Bean added.
The clouds are expected to be very different from those we see on Earth, the researchers said.