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Is Anybody Out There?

Scientists have discovered the first planet with an atmosphere outside our solar system. But the chances of finding extra-terrestrials there are slim.

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A star with an atmosphere all of its own

The Hubble Space Telescope has spied a planet with an atmosphere outside our solar system. According to NASA, the star is slightly smaller than Jupiter and orbits in the constellation Pegasus, some 150 light years from earth. One light year is roughly 10 trillion kilometers (6 trillion miles).

But even though this marks the first time a star with an atmosphere has been discovered, life on this planet is virtually impossible. NASA scientists say the star's atmosphere is loaded with sodium and is inhospitable to life as we know it.

Another factor that speaks against earthly life is the extreme heat on the planet: since it orbits around its sun at a close distance, temperatures in its atmosphere are believed to be around 1100 degree Celsius (2012 Fahrenheit). Metal would instantly melt at such temperatures.

Scientific breakthrough

But even if earthly life is impossible on this star, astronomers consider the mere discovery of a planet with an atmosphere a breakthrough. What is important to them is the notion that the Hubble Space Telescope managed to detect an atmosphere outside our immediate neighborhood.

David Charbonneau of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena is the head investigator on the NASA project. He says this discovery opens up "an exciting new phase of extrasolar planet exploration."

NASA scientists think that this discovery will spur on the search for Earth-type planets over the next decade. They're hoping to find planets where they can detect ozone, water, carbon dioxide and methane.

Alan Boss, an astronomer working with the Carnegie Institution in Washington, says if all four of these elements can be found on one star, it could well be that this planet is habitable - if not actually inhabited.

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