Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently reported the detection of water and methane, a simple organic molecule, a distant planet outside of our solar system. This finding is exciting to scientists because it confirms that organic molecules and water - two potential building blocks of life - can be identified on distant planets.
The planet, known in astronomy circles as HD189733b, orbits a star slightly smaller than our Sun. It is located a long ways from earth - 369 trillion miles (63 light years), to be exact. It's surface temperature is ~ 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, far too hot to support life as we know it. Therefore, the detection of methane and water on HD189733b is more proof of principle, rather than a hot lead for life.
Data were collected using the Hubble Space Telescope. Researchers measured light originating from the planet's star that had passed through the planetary atmosphere. The properties of light passing through a planetary atmosphere are are altered slightly by the the types of molecules found therein. A full description of the method can be found in an NPR interview with NASA scientist Mark Swain.
The ability to conduct these types of measurements opens the door to similar studies of other planets whose surface temperature might be more like our own.