Astronomers Detect Clouds Of Water Outside Our Solar System

Posted: Jul 10 2016, 9:12pm CDT | by , Updated: Jul 10 2016, 9:14pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

Astronomers Detect Clouds of Water Outside Our Solar System
Credit: Joy Pollard, Gemini Observatory/AURA

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Water clouds have been found in the atmosphere of a cold object lying outside solar system for the first time

For the first time, astronomers have found strong evidence of water clouds wrapped around an icy body beyond our solar system.

The icy body, known as WISE 0855, is a brown dwarf having a size between a giant planet and a small star. It is lying just 7.2 light years from the Earth and is the coldest known object we have ever detected outside our solar system.

Researchers have been able to look into the composition and chemical makeup of WISE 0855 using a powerful ground-based telescope, and believe that the object is dominated by clouds of water or ice, making it the first object with such feature sitting outside our solar system.

“WISE 0855 is our first opportunity to study an extrasolar planetary-mass object that is nearly as cold as our own gas giants," said lead researcher Andrew Skemer from UC Santa Cruz.

“We would expect an object that cold to have water clouds and this is the best evidence that it does.”

WISE 0855 was first detected in 2014 and has fascinated researchers ever since. Previous observations also provided hint at the existence of water clouds in its atmosphere but lack of data did not allow researchers to come to a definitive conclusion.

WISE 0855 is too faint to be tested with conventional spectroscopy as it barely emits infrared radiations but the internal energy of the object offered researchers an opportunity to detect its molecular composition and enabled researchers to obtain the spectrum - separation of light from an object into its component wavelengths.

The temperature of WISE 0855 is about 250 Kelvin or minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. When researchers developed atmospheric models for a brown dwarf at this cold temperature and compared the results with the chemistry of gas giant Jupiter, they found that the object is strikingly resembles Jupiter with respect to water absorption which has a temperature of 130 Kelvin. The only difference is the lack of phosphine in WISE 0855 which is an indication of less turbulent atmosphere.

"It's five times fainter than any other object detected with ground-based spectroscopy at this wavelength,” said Skemer. “Now that we have a spectrum, we can really start thinking about what's going on in this object. Our spectrum shows that WISE 0855 is dominated by water vapor and clouds, with an overall appearance that is strikingly similar to Jupiter."

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