Tuesday, 17 September, 2019

Water vapor detected in the atmosphere of a temperate mini-Neptune exoplanet

Scientists find WATER on a planet 110 light years from Earth Hints of rain clouds found on small alien world
Sandra Phillips | 13 September, 2019, 22:38

Astronomers have discovered for the first time the presence of water in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting within the habitable zone of a distant star. The apparent condensation and formation of clouds suggests there could be something like a water cycle happening in the atmosphere of K2-18b.

This enabled us to make the first successful detection of an atmosphere with water vapour around a non-gaseous planet, which is also located within the habitable zone of its star.

K2-18b is one of hundreds of "super-Earths" - exoplanets with masses between those of Earth and Neptune - found by Kepler.

A little known planet that is about 110-light-years away from our solar system might be able to host life, a new study has found.

Two independent teams have discovered the signature of water vapor in the atmosphere of super-Earth K2-18b. Super Earths are defined as having a mass greater than Earth but less than gas giants like Uranus and Neptune; more than 1,260 have been confirmed to date.

"We don't know how much water there is; however, what these models clearly say is that there is an atmosphere and that there is water there", said co-author Dr Ingo Waldmann. Based on the researchers' calculations, they believe the planet could even be at a similar temperature to that of Earth.

"Finding water on a potentially habitable world other than Earth is incredibly exciting", said Angelos Tsiaras, a research associate working at University College London's (UCL) department of physics and astronomy.

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This is the first time that scientists have found water in the atmosphere around a super-Earth.

Sadly, exoplanets in orbit around red dwarfs are considered poor candidates for habitability, owing to the propensity of this group of stars to produce tremendously powerful and frequent solar flares.

However, the discovery brings astronomers closer to answering the fundamental question of how unique Earth is in the universe, the scientists said.

Hubble observations resulted in a distinct water signal, but the UCL researchers weren't certain about the amount of water packed into the atmosphere of K2-18b, or whether liquid water exists at the surface.

Further studies are required to estimate cloud coverage and the percentage of atmospheric water present, the researchers said.

However, some scientists who were not a part of the research, said the planet should not be described as "habitable". But the range extends to include temperatures much colder or warmer than Earth because of the constraints of their data. At such a close proximity, it might not sound like K2-18b is inside the habitable zone, but because red dwarfs emit low levels of radiation, their habitable zones are much nearer compared to systems like ours. The results revealed the molecular signature of water vapour, also indicating the presence of hydrogen and helium in the planet's atmosphere. This planet is large and has a thick atmosphere, making it easier, but in principle planets the same size and temperature as Earth could be analyzed this way as well. So he and his colleagues developed new analysis techniques to provide evidence that clouds made up of liquid water droplets likely exist on K2-18 b. 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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