For 1st Time NASA Finds Water Vapor on a Super-Earth

Water Found on Distant Earth-like Planet K2-18b

Water Found on Distant Earth-like Planet K2-18b

K2-18b orbits a cool dwarf star and is about 110 light years away from Earth in the Leo constellation.

There are other ingredients that are necessary too, and there are promising signs that K2-18b might harbor more than just water vapor. That means it's in the star's habitable zone, where liquid water could exist. Getting to know K2-18b a bit better, she said, "will be important for understanding the potential habitability of smaller "Earth-sized" planets". Put simply, we have detected water on a potentially habitable planet for the first time. According to astronomers and researchers involved in the project, K2-18b is the only known planet outside of our solar system that has the proper temperature and atmosphere to support life. The planet was first discovered in 2015 by NASA's Kepler spacecraft.

Over a period of three years, researchers were able to obtain Hubble observations of eight transits where K2-18b passed between its host star and Earth. The planet, K2-18b, is certainly not habitable by us, as it's a mini-Neptune that may not have any solid surface and is likely to have a hydrogen/helium-rich atmosphere.

Researchers do not think K2-18b is the only super-earth like this and expect to find others with similar characteristics among more than 4000 exoplanets that have already been discovered. There have been instances of water found on gassy exoplanets, but those are not believed to be habitable by human-like life forms because they show limited capacity for carbon, nitrogen and oxygen - the building blocks for life as we know it. "While not a true Earth-analogue due to its size, this bodes well for our exploration of small planets", Josh Lothringer, who studies exoplanet atmospheres at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, said on Twitter.

Another team based at the University College London, including lead author Angelos Tsiaras, published an independent analysis of the same Hubble data, now publicly available, in Nature Astronomy on September 11th. Preliminary scans of the exoplanet suggested it was a super-Earth, that is, a rocky planet larger than Earth, and that it featured an atmosphere.

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Still, water on the planet could be in equilibrium with water vapor in the atmosphere, allowing it to be detected. However, it brings us closer to answering the fundamental question: "Is the Earth unique?", Tsiaras said.

A research team used archival data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope between 2016 and 2017 that captured starlight as it passed through the atmosphere of the exoplanet. The London data suggest water vapor makes up anywhere between 0.01% and 50% of the atmosphere - "quite a big range", Waldmann acknowledged.

There's still a chance it could be bathed in a huge ocean, though, which would be more suitable for life, Abel Mendez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, who was not involved in either study, told Daniel Oberhaus at WIRED. And K2-18b is likely to resemble Neptune, with no obvious surface, while temperatures and pressures increase as you move toward the planet's core.

Co-author Professor Giovanna Tinetti said: "Our discovery makes K2-18b one of the most interesting targets for future study". Further observations are needed to determine whether the planet is indeed a true water world, using next-generation observatories like NASA's James Webb Space Telescope and the European Space Agency's Ariel, both due to launch in the 2020s.

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