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Hunt for Distant Planets Intensifies |

When astronomers discovered planet GJ 1214b circling a star more than 47 light-years from Earth in 2009, their data presented two possibilities. Either it was a mini-Neptune shrouded in a thick atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, or it was a water world nearly three times the size of Earth.

Along came Jacob Bean, now an assistant professor in astronomy & astrophysics at the University of Chicago, who used a new method called multi-object spectroscopy to analyze the planet’s atmosphere from large, ground-based telescopes. Aided by technology, Bean and his colleagues are surmounting the challenge of inferring the atmospheric composition of planets that were invisible to humans just a few years ago.

“We’re trying to distinguish whether it’s like the gas giants we know about, or something fundamentally different from what we’ve seen in our solar system — an atmosphere predominantly composed of water,” Bean said.

The search for exoplanets - planets beyond our own solar system - has taken off over the last decade, and is now a growing component of UChicago’s research agenda in astronomy. One estimate published in January calculated that our Milky Way galaxy alone contains at least 17 billion Earth-sized planets, with a vast potential for life-sustaining worlds. Pursuing the exoplanet search via complementary methods are Bean and Daniel Fabrycky, another assistant professor in astronomy & astrophysics. continue reading

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