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Astronomers using data from three of NASA's space telescopes -- Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler -- have discovered clear skies and steamy water vapor on a gaseous planet outside our solar system.

The planet is about the size of Neptune, making it the smallest planet from which molecules of any kind have been detected.

"This discovery is a significant milepost on the road to eventually analyzing the atmospheric composition of smaller, rocky planets more like Earth," said John Grunsfeld, assistant administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Such achievements are only possible today with the combined capabilities of these unique and powerful observatories."

Clouds in a planet's atmosphere can block the view to underlying molecules that reveal information about the planet's composition and history. Finding clear skies on a Neptune-size planet is a good sign that smaller planets might have similarly good visibility.

"When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say 'clear skies' to mean good luck," said Jonathan Fraine of the University of Maryland, College Park, lead author of a new study appearing in Nature. "In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That's lucky for us because it means clouds didn't block our view of water molecules."

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