Friday, April 8, 2011

Planet's lack of odor could rewrite chemistry, 09.17.10

The rules of chemistry are being reevaluated. Scientists at the University of Central Florida recently published the results of a study that report a planet with chemistry that is leaving scientists puzzled because it is missing one of the most common and plentiful compounds found on gas giants: methane. On Earth, methane—a particularly odorous compound—is perceived as evidence of life, but on alien planets it is merely common chemistry.

The planet in question is Giant Planet GJ 436b, 33 light years away in the constellation Leo. The planet is about the size of Neptune and has an atmosphere mostly composed of carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas. According to scientists Kevin Stevenson and Joseph Harrington, both of UCF, these discoveries of the planet’s chemistry were made by analyzing the planet’s spectrum, a technology that takes advantage of each chemical compound’s unique frequency on the light spectrum.

The scientists have several theories for where the methane on the planet, if any at all, may be going. They have postulated that either it is being broken down by intense UV radiation from the planet’s star, or that it is being carried away by strong vertical winds. One other theory they have is that the planet may have an alien chemistry. According to the researchers, this planet could be the first evidence that chemistry does not always follow the same ‘rules’ as it does in our own solar system. If this is the case, most of what scientists think they know about chemistry could be radically altered.

““GJ 436b is telling us something important,” says Harrington: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.””

Credit: NASA Science, Dr. Tony Phillips, Dauna Coulter, and Science@NASA.

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