Science & Tech

Stellar apocalypse yields first evidence of water-bearing worlds beyond our solar system

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Spaced-based radio observatory makes discovery possible

The first evidence that planetary systems beyond our own contain water, a molecule that is an essential ingredient for known forms of life, was discovered recently by using the Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS), a small radio observatory that NASA launched into space in December 1998. The discovery was reported in an article published in the journal Nature on July 12, 2001. “Over the past two years, SWAS has detected water vapor from a wide variety of astronomical sources,” says Gary Melnick of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, principal investigator on the SWAS mission. “What makes the results we are reporting today so unusual is that we have found a cloud of water vapor around a star where we would not ordinarily have expected to find water.”