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Water discovered in a small, warm exoplanet’s atmosphere for first time

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The James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018 , will be even more sensitive to signs of water vapor in planets’ atmospheres than Hubble. (Illustration: ESA)

The planet is a ball of gas with surface temperatures of 600C, but future studies of alien atmospheres may reveal signs of life

Astronomers have detected water vapour in the atmosphere of a planet that orbits a star far beyond our solar system.

Observations of the Neptune-sized planet, which lies 120 light years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, revealed that its atmosphere was mostly hydrogen with around 25% made up from water vapour.

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Until now, researchers have been frustrated in their efforts to study the atmospheres of planets much smaller than Jupiter because their skies were thick with clouds. The problem was so persistent that astronomers had begun to think that all warm, small planets formed with substantial cloud cover.

But writing in the journal Nature, scientists in the US describe how they found a Neptune-sized planet with cloud-free skies, enabling them to make detailed measurements of a small planet’s atmosphere for the first time.

The planet, named HAT-P-11b, is about four times the diameter of Earth. It orbits so close to its star that surface temperatures reach more than 600C and a year passes in five Earth days. Like our own Neptune, the planet lacks a rocky surface – it’s a ball of gas – and is thought to be lifeless.

Scientists from the University of Maryland used Hubble’s wide field camera to analyse light from HAT-P-11b’s host star through the planet’s atmosphere. They found that light with a wavelength of 1.4 micrometres was absorbed, matching the absorption spectrum of water molecules.

“Although this planet is not classically habitable, it reveals to us that when we find Earth 2.0, we will be able to use this technique, transmission spectroscopy, to understand its atmosphere and determine the quality of life available on its shores,” said Jonathan Fraine, a graduate student and first author on the study.

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If cloud cover were widespread on smaller planets beyond the solar system, astronomers would need radically different approaches or far more advanced technology to probe their atmospheres. “Now we know that not all warm Neptunes form with high-altitude clouds, we can again explore the diversity of planet formation and gain greater context for our own creation,” said Fraine.

Future studies of alien atmospheres may detect proportions of gases that point to life below. On Earth, methane, ammonia and nitrous oxide are produced mostly by bacteria, while oxygen comes from plants and other photosynthesising organisms. Because the gases are not made in large amounts by anything else, they are considered “biosignatures”, or signs of life.

“Biosignatures are much harder to find, but with bigger, exoplanet-specific telescopes and precise instruments, we should be able to start looking for them too,” said Fraine. “We may be far from analysing an Earth analogue, but now we know that our train is on the right tracks.”

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In 2018, Nasa is due to launch its successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope. The observatory has been designed to pick up signals much fainter than Fraine’s team spotted with the Hubble camera.

In an accompanying article, Eliza Kempton at Grinnell College in Iowa praised the breakthrough. “Searching for water vapour absorption in the atmosphere of an exoplanet passing in front of its host star is akin to looking for a tiny insect passing in front of a bright coastal lighthouse lamp,” she wrote.

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“By first pinpointing and studying those planets that provide a clear window into their atmospheres, researchers will ultimately be able to extend the search for water and other molecules to smaller planets, perhaps even Earth-sized planets, with the James Webb telescope and beyond.”

 


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The Arab uprisings were weakened by online fakes

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The Arab uprisings a decade ago were supercharged by online calls to join the protests -- but the internet was soon flooded with misinformation, weakening the region's cyber-activists.

When Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in January 2011, rumours and uncertainty created "panic and hysteria", said ex-activist and entrepreneur Houeida Anouar.

"January 14 was a horrible night, so traumatic," she said. "We heard gunfire, and a neighbour shouted 'hide yourselves, they're raping women'."

As pro-regime media pumped out misinformation, the flood of bogus news also spread to the internet, a space activists had long seen as a refuge from censorship and propaganda.

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Dr. Fauci warns of post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 surge in US

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The United States is the worst-affected country, with 266,074 Covid-19 deaths, and President Donald Trump's administration has issued conflicting messages on mask-wearing, travel and the danger posed by the virus.

"There almost certainly is going to be an uptick because of what has happened with the travel," Fauci told CNN's "State of the Union."

Travel surrounding Thursday's Thanksgiving holiday made this the busiest week in US airports since the pandemic began.

"We may see a surge upon a surge" in two or three weeks, Fauci added. "We don't want to frighten people, but that's the reality."

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Sidney Powell’s new election lawsuit cites election experts she won’t even name: legal expert

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President Donald Trump's former election lawyer, Sidney Powell, has filed her lawsuit in Georgia suing Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) for what she says is a fraudulent election.

But lawyer Mike Dunford explained that it doesn't exactly work that way. Reading through Powell's court document "Emergency Motion for Declaratory, Emergency, and Permanent Injunctive Relief and Memorandum in Support Thereof."

"If you want emergency relief it is very helpful to be as clear and concise as humanly possible," he explained. "Pointing the court back to your 100+ page complaint with its 29 exhibits isn't how that is best done. To put it very mildly."

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