Sunday, 22 September, 2019

Water vapor found on an 'Earth-sized' exoplanet 110 light-years from home

1661300_web1_1661300-dae7733abf6145edb754f8511976d8b2 Water discovered on ‘Super-Earth’ raises first real hope of alien life
Sandra Phillips | 12 September, 2019, 11:21

Twice as large as our own planet and eight times as massive, K2-18b possesses powerful gravity that would make it hard to walk upon.

"The only question that we're trying to ask here, and we're pushing forward, is the question of habitability", Tsiaras said, adding that examining the planet further could also help answer the question: "Is the Earth unique?"

The cloud cover isn't too thick on K2-18b, otherwise it would have obscured the water vapor in the atmosphere, according to the scientists.

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"This is the only planet we know of outside the solar system that [has] the correct temperature to support water, has an atmosphere, and has water in it, making this planet the best candidate for habitability we know of right now", Angelos Tsiaras told reporters. And now, water vapor has been detected in the atmosphere of a potentially habitable exoplanet for the first time. "We don't know any other planet with the right temperature that has water in its atmosphere", Tsiaras told the Guardian. At the same time, however, the new findings could represent a blow to the planet's potential to foster life, said Louden, who's not affiliated with the new research. The planet in question is known as K2-18b, and orbits a red dwarf star some 110 light-years away in the constellation of Leo.

Although the planet sits in the habitable zone, scientists say that instruments available at present are not able to determine any signs of life. While not ideal for detecting a wide range of molecular elements in distant exoplanets, Hubble is, however, capable of detecting water vapour. A team of astronomers from the United States and Canada was allotted some observing time on Hubble to study K2-18b over several years and gathered data from eight transits of the planet in front of the star.

This transit can also help us study a planet's atmosphere. Specifically, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2021, and the European Space Agency's Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large survey (ARIEL) telescope, planned for launch in the late 2020s, are perfectly suited for the challenge.

But what's most important is that K2-18 b resides within the star's habitable zone, a region around a star where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface.

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"This is hopefully just one of many that we will find - many super-Earths going around dwarf stars", Waldmann said. The planet could, for example, be a waterworld, but that's an idea the observations can neither confirm nor deny.

"The fact we can now make observations that allow us to work out what's in the atmosphere of a planet twice the Earth's radius, orbiting a star that is just over a quadrillion kilometres away, is just fantastic". Led by Björn Benneke, their work (which has yet to be peer reviewed) points to the possibility that K2-18 b is habitable thanks to the presence of water and hydrogen, as well as the exoplanet's location in the Goldilocks zone.

Details are have been published in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy.

Though K2-18b is likely solid at its core, the temperatures and pressures at the "surface" would be so high that few complex molecules would survive, let alone any life forms.

In order to pin down exactly how much water is really on K2-18 b, the researchers say we'll have to wait for the next generation of advanced space telescopes to come online.

Professor Giovanna Tinetti said: 'Our discovery makes K2-18b one of the most interesting targets for future study'. But that same absorption quality makes water relatively easy to pick out in another planet's atmosphere, compared to other molecules such as carbon dioxide. But K2-18b is much closer to its star than Earth is to the sun, completing an orbit in just 33 days, so both planets receive about the same amount of energy. "Habitable-zone planets are the holy grail for atmospheric studies".

It is 111 light years away which is around 650 million million miles, too far to send a probe.

"Water has been suggested in this type of planet in the past, but this is the first real evidence".

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