"The planets of our own solar system, of course, are planets in and of themselves and in order to understand them - and indeed this planet - I think we need to study other planets," Oppenheimer said. "If you just look at the planets of our own solar system, they're really complicated."
The project is designed to help space scientists get a better sense of the diversity of planets that exist in the universe. Scientists are also looking for mysterious cosmic objects known as brown dwarfs that are too large to be considered a planet, but too small to produce fusion in their cores.
PHOTOS: Herschel's Coolest Infrared Hotshots
Different chemicals, like carbon dioxide, absorb light differently, allowing scientists working with Project 1640 to take measurements and see where various signatures fall on the spectra.
Oppenheimer and his colleagues using Project 1640 have already peered into the atmospheres of four cloud-covered alien planets around the star HR 8799, 127 light-years from Earth. All four of the planets are more massive than Jupiter and display some odd characteristics.