Hubble telescope spots signs of water on five planets

Two studies suggest distant worlds have atmospheres with water, but some aren't places you'd want to visit anytime soon.

Water worlds? A distant star lights up the atmosphere of an alien planet in this NASA illustration.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

If you dream of colonizing distant worlds, here's welcome news: NASA's Hubble Space Telescopehas spotted signs of water on five faraway planets, according to two studies.

You may not want to move in, though. At least one of the planets, WASP-19b, is an extremely hot, Jupiter-style world with a poisonous atmosphere featuring hydrogen cyanide.

All five worlds have hazy atmospheres that yielded faint signatures of water, adding to previous findings of water outside our solar system and possibly environments that support alien life.

The planets -- WASP-17b, HD209458b, WASP-12b, WASP-19b, and XO-1b -- are circling nearby stars.

Scientists used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 to examine infrared wavelengths for water signatures, which can show up when looking at starlight as it passes through planet atmospheres.

"To actually detect the atmosphere of an exoplanet is extraordinarily difficult," L. Drake Deming of the University of Maryland said in a NASA release. "But we were able to pull out a very clear signal, and it is water."

Deming and colleagues reported results for HD209458b and XO-1b in Astrophysical Journal. Meanwhile, another group led by Avi Mandell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center described results for WASP-12b, WASP-17b, and WASP-19b in the journal.

"We're very confident that we see a water signature for multiple planets," Mandell said. "This work really opens the door for comparing how much water is present in atmospheres on different kinds of exoplanets, for example hotter versus cooler ones."

Check out the informative NASA vid below that describes how scientists can glean so much information from tiny points of flickering starlight.