Astronomers from NASA and the European Space Agency have spotted helium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet outside the solar system.
The recent breakthrough, which is the first of its kind, will enable scientists to study the planet's atmosphere and determine the possibility of hosting life.
The astronomers detected helium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet named WASP-107b. It has been located about 200 light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Virgo using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.
"Helium is the second-most common element in the Universe after hydrogen. It is also one of the main constituents of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in our Solar System. However, up until now, helium had not been detected on exoplanets - despite searches for it," said Jessica Spake, a Ph.D. student at the University of Exeter in the UK.
Details of the study were published May 2 in the journal Nature.
Helium In Exoplanet WASP-107b
Researchers noted that the amount of helium in WASP-107b's atmosphere could be so high that it can extend to tens of thousands of kilometers into space. This process called nominal stellar chromospheric activity allows WASP-107b to lose 0.1 percent to 4 percent of its total mass per billion years.
Spake's team made the detection of helium by analyzing the infrared spectrum of WASP-107b's atmosphere. Notably, previous detections from other extended exoplanet atmospheres were done by studying the spectrum at ultraviolet and optical wavelengths.
Co-author David Sing explained that the new method, with the aid of the James Webb Space Telescope, will help them study the atmospheres of exoplanets in greater detail.
"This observation is going to open floodgates to a new area of exoplanet research, just because the helium signature is so strong," said Sara Seager, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
WASP-107b: The Super-Neptune Exoplanet
Discovered in 2017, WASP-107b is one of the hottest among known exoplanets with temperatures reaching 500 degrees Celsius or about 932 degrees Fahrenheit. It completes an orbit around its star in 5.7 Earth days.
WASP-107b is about the same size as Jupiter. Because it has the lowest density among known exoplanets, it is only about 12 percent of the mass of the largest planet in the solar system.
Meanwhile, helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. In 2000, scientists thought that helium would be one of the most readily detectable gases on giant exoplanets, but years' worth of search did not yield results until recently.