While hunting for molecules in a planet's atmosphere might not be the first thing you'd consider doing when trying to detect a massive celestial object, this is exactly what researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) in Switzerland are doing — and it totally works, reports Science Daily.
In fact, their new method is a lot more efficient at spotting new planets in the sky because it obscures the parent stars, which typically glare so brightly that it's nearly impossible to see anything around them.
The novel technique changes the game plan and focuses on the atmospheric composition of a potential new planet by searching for specific molecules that are lacking from the host star.
Led by Jens Hoeijmakers, a researcher at the Astronomy Department of UNIGE's Observatory and a member of NCCR PlanetS, the team created a device that analyzes the molecular spectrum of a planet candidate, detecting the presence of certain types of molecules that are only contained by the planet and not its parent star.
Here's How It Works
With the help of this innovative technique, the astronomers scope out the sky searching for the atmospheric blueprint of the desired elements. As a result, any planets that might be lurking in the field of vision become discernible and can be easily distinguished.
At the same time, the device turns off the light of the host stars, so to speak, because it only searches for elements that can't be spotted in the exoplanets' parent stars.
Hoeijmakers explains what makes his new device so successful.
"By focusing on molecules present only on the studied exoplanet that are absent from its host star, our technique would effectively 'erase' the star, leaving only the exoplanet."
As the Inquisitr previously reported, Beta Pictoris b and its host planet are located some 60 light-years away from Earth in the Pictor constellation of the Milky Way.
The astronomers combed through the archives of the European Southern Observatory's SINFONI instrument and analyzed each pixel in the existing images of Beta Pictoris b.
As Science Daily explains, each pixel in these images contains a specific light spectrum, which the team compared with the spectrum of certain molecules to see if they could detect a correlation that would signal the presence of that element in the exoplanet's atmosphere.