Scientists Discover New Planet With Water

Water vapor has been spotted on a “habitable zone” planet 110 light years away

Water vapor has been spotted on a “habitable zone” planet 110 light years away

In a new paper published in Nature Astronomy, researchers explain that the light passing through the planet's atmosphere offered clues as to what it might contain. "Within the next 10 years, we will know whether there are chemicals that are due to life in those atmospheres".

When Benneke's team modeled K2-18b's climate, they discovered that the planet has clouds, as well as conditions might allow for the formation of liquid water droplets.

We also know that the planet is about twice the size of Earth, and about eight times the mass. Astronomers even narrowed the planet down to two possible types. Liquid water could be stable at planet's surface, and it thus sits in the habitable zone of its star. Depending on what kind of star it is, the distance varies.

The planet is so close to its cool host star that it takes just 33 days to orbit. K2-18b is not "Earth 2.0" as it is significantly heavier and has a different atmospheric composition.

In 2016 and 2017, Benneke led a team that used Hubble to measure light from K2-18b's star that had passed through the atmosphere of the planet.

However, they can not say for sure.

Scientists have detected water vapor in the atmosphere of a potentially habitable planet for the first time ever.

Scientists analyzing the Hubble data say they found hydrogen and helium in K2-18's atmosphere as well.

Though humans are unlikely to ever set foot on the remote world with current technologies, astronomer Jonti Horner of the University of Southern Queensland told ABC the discovery would help researchers understand other Earth-like planets going forward. Exactly how much remains uncertain, but computer modelling suggested concentrations between 0.1 and 50 percent.

It's a large range, to be sure.

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Although K2-18 b flaunts some of the most Earth-like features observed in an exoplanet so far - water, habitable temperatures, and a rocky surface - the researchers point out the world is still far from Earth-like. "This is related to the size of the atmosphere".

"This is the first time that we have detected water on a planet in the habitable zone around a star where the temperature is potentially compatible with the presence of life", she said. Lead author Angelos Tsiaras says it could help determine, "Is the Earth unique?" Yet an instrument like the JWST "will provide an order-of-magnitude improvement in measurement precision over Hubble", he says, making it much easier to do detailed studies of any of the 55 habitable-zone exoplanets.

The discovery of water vapour on K2-18b does not prove there is water on the surface.

Most exoplanets with atmospheres are giant balls of gas, and the handful of rocky planets for which data is available seem to have no atmosphere at all.

Ryan Cloutier at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said an independent analysis, or fresh observations, would be valuable to confirm the detection of water vapour. It is also necessary that the planet has an atmosphere to protect the planet from any harmful radiation coming from its host star.

Tsiaris said that NASA's forthcoming James Webb Telescope, which is slated to launch in 2021, and the European Space Agency's ARIEL telescope, which is slated to launch in 2028, will be able to gather much more data on K2-18 b.

K2-18b will surely be receiving more attention from astronomers around the world, not only with existing telescopes but with next-generation ones, including NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, tentatively set for launch in 2021; and the European Space Agency's ARIEL space telescope, specifically created to study the atmosphere of exoplanets, and targeted for a 2028 launch.

"I think the result is incredible", said Kreidberg. "These objects are incredibly enigmatic, the so-called sub-Neptunes ... and we have no idea what they are", said Sara Seager, an MIT exoplanet researcher originally from Toronto, who was not involved in the study.

However, we can not say, with current data, exactly how likely the planet is to support life.

Tsiaras is optimistic about the future of exoplanet habitability research.

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