by Graham Pierrepoint
The search for extra-terrestrial life – intelligent or otherwise – has been ongoing for decades, and while millions may have assumed that we’d be talking with little green men by now, efforts have so far proven fruitless. This means that it really does take a special set of circumstances for life to be able to spring up in the most unexpected of places – and that humanity, for the most part, is extraordinarily lucky! Can we truly be alone in the universe? Who’s to say – the lack of results so far certainly hasn’t put NASA off, and even today researchers and astronauts are continuing work to try and find planets beyond our physical reach that may either host life forms or may host suitable conditions for life to begin.
Once such discovery, an exoplanet named HAT-P-26b, has grabbed science headlines this week as it was found to possess what has been termed a ‘primitive’ atmosphere – composite of both helium and hydrogen, indicating that a number of interesting reactions could have occurred to allow such a layer to come into being. Some media sources claim that the discovery of such an atmosphere could point towards potential life – however, industry journals and sources are being far more reserved, focusing more upon the fascinating composition of the planet’s atmosphere and what it could mean for future studies.
HAT-P-26b is almost 440 light years away from Earth, and it has earned the nickname ‘Warm Neptune’ due to its similar size to that of the eighth planet in the solar system. This is a name that can apply to several of the clusters of exoplanets discovered closely orbiting dwarf stars – however, the most recent discovery possesses an interesting atmospheric composition that has genuinely made researchers and fans of astronomy sit up and take notice. The new Warm Neptune is said to be potentially rich in elements, meaning that the creation of its fairly uncommon atmosphere may be more complex than it first appears.
While this news may not point us in the direction of intelligent life having been discovered, the fact that we are able to gain such new information about faraway bodies in the universe is still rather staggering – and for anyone interested in the creation and evolution of planets, this new Warm Neptune at least provides a change from the norm. We will simply have to wait and see if scientists can come up with a solid answer as to why it is how it is – and as for those little green men, sit tight!