Nov 11, 2010

Hunting down alien volcanoes

Hubble's successor could spot eruptions on extrasolar planets
NASA'S JAMES WEBB Space Telescope (JWST), due for launch in 2014, could spot the tell-tale signs of violent volcanoes erupting on alien planets. Astronomers are still decades away from being able to image the surface of an extrasolar planet. But they have been able to see chemical signatures of certain gases in the atmospheres of gas giants orbiting close to their stars.
Violent landscape: intense volcanic eruptions that the next generation JWST
could spot on an extrasolar planet

A new theoretical study by scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts now suggests that JWST could detect sulphur dioxide from very explosive eruptions on nearby exoplanets. Large amounts of the gas would be produced by the eruptions and sulphur dioxide is very slow to wash out of the air.

"You would need something truly earth-shaking, an eruption that dumped a lot of gases into the atmosphere," says team member Lisa Kaltenegger. She estimates that JWST could detect a volcanic eruption 10 to 100 times as powerful as the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, provided it was on a planet circling a nearby star.

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