Front page

Are you afraid of the dark?

(Click to invert colors, weenie.) (Requires JavaScript.)

All email will be assumed to be for publication unless otherwise requested.

What's in the banner?

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Watery Worlds

Instapundit links to this Reuters article on water detected in extrasolar planets. Glenn's excited. Oops, not so fast there. They've detected water masers. Anyplace you find water masers is not going to be healthy for children and other living things (too hot).

Ahh, but here's the abstract of a paper reporting water masers detected from the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy/9 on Jupiter! Now, of course, Jupiter is not thought to be suitable for terrestrial life, either, but a comet (made largely of ice, remember) impacting a terrestrial planet's atmosphere might get hot enough to provide molecules suitable for masing.

This one-page article is on line in the form of a PDF file. Click on "Full Printable Article". It explains the situation clearly: They've detected water masers from the cometary impact with Jupiter. The early solar system is thought to have been thick with comets, the Earth "showered" with them. Therefore in other solar systems we ought to be able to detect water masers from cometary impact with other planets.

Apparently that's what they've done (or think they've done), but I didn't see a mention of comets. The problem with this (from a "Let's go" standpoint) is that any kind of planet (like Jupiter) can have comets falling on it and producing these masers. It doesn't necessarily mean there are Earth-like planets. I can't get to the New Scientist website right now, so I can't say for sure if that's what they've done.

That second article makes it clear that they are intending to use this technique to actually search for extrasolar planets, rather than than to search for extrasolar Earth-like planets. So, it's not really as exciting as the Reuters article made it sound.

The abstract of the first article seems to have a line missing; it doesn't tell you the strength of their detection. There's nothing about that in the PDF article either. So I don't know whether it's really reasonable for them to think they have detected a comet/planet collision-induced water maser. Water masers are thick in dusty regions of the universe, where stars are born and where you're going to find young solar systems. So it might be hard to tell which masers are produced by planet-comet collisions, and which are produced by other means.

Still, this is a very clever idea, if it works.

Here's a little explanation of interstellar lasers/masers.

Does Cosmovici mean something like "cosmos conquerer"?

UPDATE: Here's the New Scientist article on this subject. It says pretty much what's in the Reuters article, except that it does caution that planets where water is detected are not necessarily going to be what we think of as habitable.

They don't say anything about comets, however, and I'm wondering whether you can get water masers in a planetary atmosphere without some sort of localized heat source. I'm not sure whether a planetary atmosphere can be that hot and remain an atmosphere very long. (I don't know much about planets. They're tiny and can get these biological infestations on them.)

By the way, when I talked about comets crashing into planets, above, I was thinking of planets with an atmosphere, not bare balls of rock.