An extraterrestrial molecule found by pure chance

An alien molecule found by pure chance


Researchers from an international team of astrophysicists partly based in Montreal have just discovered an unknown extraterrestrial molecule on a planet outside our solar system 

“This molecule does not correspond to any other that we expected to find. It was a surprise,” explains astrophysicist Björn Benneke, professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Montreal and member of the Institute for Research on Exoplanets.

He and five other Quebecers worked in collaboration with 125 scientists in 12 countries as part of the first month of activity of the James Webb Space Telescope, in July. 

The planet WASP-39b where finds this molecule is located 700 light-years from Earth, in the constellation of Virgo.

Any form of life is impossible there due to its proximity to its star: the temperature is 900° C on average. That of the Earth is 15°C.

Mystery molecule 

Astrophysicists were looking for proof of the presence of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the planet's atmosphere, which they obtained after four hours of observation.

But their biggest surprise was to note the presence of an unidentified molecule in a large enough quantity to be taken into consideration.

When they compared the spectral signature of this molecule to the most frequent compounds of distant planets (nitric oxide, methane, oxygen, hydrogen sulphide and water vapour), at the beginning of August, they did not found no similarities.

At this time, the researchers cannot raise any hypotheses on the chemical composition of this molecule and its role in the atmosphere of the targeted planet, but this work has just passed at the top of the list of scientific priorities for researchers. 

“We independently analyzed the data from the observation mission on our own. We came to the same conclusion. This planet seems to possess a molecule that has never been described,” enthuses Professor Benneke.

To be continued

Regarding the “mystery” molecule, astrophysicist Robert Lamontagne believes that it is “too early to say that it is new to science”. 

Comparisons that will be carried out in the coming months may reveal a relationship with molecules known elsewhere in the universe or on Earth 


  • It is among approximately 5,000 planets outside the solar system (exoplanets) identified by astrophysicists.
  • It was a prime target for the new space telescope due to its mass about a quarter of that of Saturn and its size, 1.3 times that of Jupiter.
  • We study the composition of the atmosphere of this type of planet in order to better understand the chemical signature of CO2. We will be better equipped to discover planets that support life.
  • The research was led by Natalie Batalha of the University of California at Santa Cruz. More than 130 researchers signed the Nature article, which appeared on Monday.

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