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SciShow Space News shares the latest developments from around the universe, including the discovery of water vapor on a new “exo-Neptune,” and cyanide found in the clouds where stars are born.
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Sources:
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-09/eic-cso092414.php
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-09/uom-nmi092314.php
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v513/n7519/full/nature13785.html
http://www.nature.com/news/wet-exoplanet-has-clear-skies-1.15973
http://www.nature.com/news/cloudy-skies-on-nearby-super-earth-1.14450
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-09/cu-nmf092614.php
http://www.eurekalert.org/jrnls/sci/summaries-09-26-14.php#D
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-09/m-ima091914.php
For the first time ever, astronomers have detected water on an exoplanet that's comparable in size to Earth and it's also the first time we've found a small planet with an atmosphere that we can get a closer look at. 

Last week, astronomers from the University of Maryland reported in the journal Nature that they found water vapour on a Neptune sized exoplanet called HAT-P 11B, about a hundred and twenty light years away in the constellation Cygnus.  At about four times the size of Earth, it's the smallest exoplanet on which we've ever detected water. But that water aside, HAT-P probably isn't habitable. It orbits its star at a pretty cozy eight million kilometers, compared to Earth's 150 million kilometers from the sun. So its surface temperature is likely more than 600 degrees Celsius. But the fact that it's relatively small combined with the fact that we've been able to detect any kind of molecules there is still significant. That's because of the very few small exoplanets that we found so far, all of them have had really thick atmospheres. So thick that the method that we use to study them, called spectroscopy, has been all but impossible. Spectroscopy analyzes the light from nearby stars as it passes through the planet's atmosphere. Chemicals in the atmosphere absorb different wavelengths of light so the spectrum of light that we detect can tell us what the atmosphere is made of. Problem is, the outer layers of these smaller worlds are so highly concentrated that almost no starlight can get through. Astronomers don't know why these smaller exoplanets usually have these thick, concentrated cloud layers. But until we found HAT-P-11B, some experts had feared that we'd just never be able to study the atmospheres of these smaller worlds. But its discovery proves that there are smaller planets out there with clearer skies and water. Sounds pretty nice, except for the part about the heat melting your face off. 

Speaking of life friendly stuff in distant parts of the galaxy, astronomers have just discovered the largest molecules ever to be detected in a region of space where stars form. And, one of these molecules they found is pretty similar to the complex molecules necessary for life. Using Chile's Alma Observatory, and its 66 radio telescopes researchers from the US and Europe conducted a survey of the star-forming region known as Sagittarius B2 in ten times greater detail than ever before. And way out there, twenty seven thousand light years away near the center of the Milk Way Galaxy, they found two very special molecules. One has the totally normal sounding name normal-propyl cyanide. A molecule of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen that with its 12 atoms, is big for a compound that you'd find floating around in space. They also found isopropyl cyanide, a very similar 12 atom molecule, except for one thing. Rather than being a simple chain, this molecule is branched. It's got a more complex shape, like that found in some organic molecules, like amino acids. We found some pretty big molecules before in the star making regions of space, like chains of carbon that could eventually become the backbones for organic molecules. But we've never found anything this complex, so even though these things are cyanides, and yes they would be toxic to us, if they can form in the interstellar medium it's possible that other complex molecules, like amino acids, can have their origins there too. It turns out that the complex chemistry needed for life may be older and more plentiful than we thought, present even at the births of stars. 

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