Home Science Space Astronomers get first time look at clouds on exoplanets
Kepler-7b (left), which is 1.5 times the radius of Jupiter (right), is the first exoplanet to have its clouds mapped. The cloud map was produced using data from NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes. Kepler-7b (left), which is 1.5 times the radius of Jupiter (right), is the first exoplanet to have its clouds mapped. The cloud map was produced using data from NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MIT

For the first time, astronomers have mapped clouds on an extrasolar planet (exoplanet), or a planet orbiting a star other than the Sun.

The first cloud map of an exoplanet was performed by astronomers on the gas giant exoplanet called Kepler 7b, which is almost 1,000 light-years from Earth, where one light-year is approximately 10 trillion kilometers (6 trillion miles).

The National Geographic article entitled First Cloud Map of a Planet Beyond our Solar System states, “By combining three years worth of infrared and visual observations from NASA’s Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes,  a low -resolution map was stitched together showing high clouds in the gas giant’s western hemisphere. The planet’s eastern side sports clear skies, instead.”

In addition, Kepler “was able to see Kepler-7b undergoing phases changes like the waxing and waning of the moon and spy a mysterious bright spot on its western hemisphere. All of this was detected as the planet zipped around its parent star, circling it completely in just under 7 days.”

Further, “Not able to tell if the bright spot was due to clouds or heat, astronomers swung Spitzer into action. Spitzer measured the planet’s temperature, which led the astronomers to confirm that the source of light was due to its host star’s light bouncing off the cloud tops on its western sun-facing hemisphere.”

Being able to detect clouds on very distant planets is a very important step in eventually learning whether or not planets harbor intelligent life on them. Further, the detection of plant life is another way to help scientists learn more about which exoplanets may contain life.

It may only be a few more years before astronomers can tell which exoplanets are likely to contain life forms (maybe even intelligent life forms), and a few more years after that before astronomers can make a definite statement about such life.

The July 19, 2013 article by Dvice.com called “What’s the most likely way we’ll find life on other planets?” stated the following: “Despite science fiction's fondness for alien invasions, the first signs of life on another planet most likely won't come from radio beacons, let alone ships decimating the White House with giant energy beam. They may not come from Earth robots hunting for life, either. Instead, the first evidence for life may be in the form of passive signals, telltale signs of life and its processes, that astronomers will find in a planet's atmosphere. And those could very well come from the most passive life forms we know: plants.”

Russian astronomer Andrei Finkelstein, the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Applied Astronomy Institute, has stated (in 2011) that intelligent extraterrestrial life does exist (he is hypothesizing because he doesn’t know for sure -- yet), and that astronomers could detect such life within two decades.

Finkelstein stated, "The genesis of life is as inevitable as the formation of atoms." (http://www.livescience.com/33361-alien-life-extraterrestrials-20-years-astronomers.html)


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William Atkins

William Atkins completed educational degrees in science (bachelor’s in physics and mathematics) from Illinois State University (Normal, United States) and business (master’s in entrepreneurship and bachelor’s in industrial relations) from Western Illinois University