What is unusual about their work is that the spectrum was obtained during a total lunar eclipse meaning that the light had passed tangentially through the Earth's atmosphere before illuminating the Moon. This enabled the detection of features in the Earthshine that are normally so weak that they cannot be seen. These features betray the presence in the Earth's atmosphere of molecules that are essential for life as we know it, such as oxygen, water and carbon dioxide and products of life, such as methane.
Drs Pallé and Montañés-Rodríguez completed their studies in Armagh in 2001 and 2002 and subsequently worked at the Big Bear Solar Observatory in California. Both are now employed by the Astrophysical Institute of the Canary Islands in Tenerife. Their work is part of a larger project to explore ways by which astronomers can detect planets which orbit distant stars and have atmospheres suitable for biological life similar to that on Earth. Over 300 so-called extra-solar planets are now known with the number increasing weekly. This new work could make it easier to find out which, if any, can support life.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION PLEASE CONTACT: John Butler or John McFarland at the Armagh Observatory, College Hill, Armagh, BT61 9DG. Tel.: 028-3752-2928; FAX: 028-3752-7174; cjbarm.ac.uk; jmfarm.ac.uk
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