Conference Will Discuss Uses of World's Largest Database on Atmospheric Gases
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Friday, May 16, 2008 - 10:30am

What do military detections of jet aircraft, space-based Earth observations, and studies of distant, extrasolar planets have in common? All make use of HITRAN, which stands for the HIgh-resolution TRANsmission molecular absorption database.

These applications of HITRAN, and more, will be the subject of a three-day conference from Sunday, June 22 to Tuesday, June 24 at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. Both scientists and interested media representatives are invited to attend.

"Even I am amazed at the number of applications scientists find for HITRAN," said Larry Rothman, who created and manages the database. "And we foresee even more uses for it in the future.

HITRAN contains information on about 40 different molecules ranging from water and carbon dioxide to human-generated trace gases. Each molecule has its own distinct fingerprint or signature, detectable by sophisticated instruments called spectrometers. HITRAN holds data on nearly two million spectroscopic lines, which serve as the molecular fingerprints in the same way that loops and whorls are used to classify actual fingerprints.

"Just as the Human Genome Project determined the DNA fingerprint of a human, we have determined the fingerprints of key atmospheric gases," explained Rothman. "You might say that we have deciphered the genome of Earth's atmosphere."

The laboratory data within HITRAN is used to interpret a wide variety of measurements. For example, Earth-orbiting spacecraft monitor our world and the changes its atmosphere is undergoing. Using HITRAN, scientists can tease out the information embedded in those measurements – not just what gases are present, but how much, at what height in the atmosphere, and at what temperature.

At the upcoming conference, an international slate of participants will discuss the many existing and future applications of HITRAN, including studies of the Earth, other solar system planets, distant planets in other star systems, stellar atmospheres, and interstellar gases.

Rothman encourages anyone who is interested in learning more about the conference to visit its web site at

Scientists can register online at

Journalists wishing to attend should contact one of the individuals listed below.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

Larry Rothman, Conference Organizer

David Aguilar, Director of Public Affairs

Christine Pulliam, Public Affairs Specialist