Water Vapor Discovered on Potentially Habitable Planet

NASA’s planet-hunting satellite TESS helps discover a'super-Earth and two gaseous sub Neptune-sized planets orbiting a nearby star 73 light years away

Tsiaras added, however, that the planet should not be considered an "Earth 2.0", because "it is significantly heavier and has a different atmospheric composition". First off, K2-18 b is roughly twice the diameter of Earth, which makes it about eight times as massive.

Co-author Dr Ingo Waldmann said: "With so many new super-Earths expected to be found over the next couple of decades, it is likely that this is the first discovery of many potentially habitable planets". Depending on what kind of star it is, the distance varies. The planet was first discovered in 2015 by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. To get the answer, the UCL team turned to one of the great workhorses of modern astronomy, the Hubble Space Telescope.

"It needs to be confirmed, but our paper says not only is there water vapor, but there are hints in the spectrum of clouds", says team leader Björn Benneke of the University of Montreal in Canada.

To look at the planet's atmosphere, Dr Tsiaras and his colleagues analysed data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope as the planet passed in front of its sun. These types of planets are commonly referred to as mini-Neptunes, thought to have rocky or icy cores surrounded by expansive atmospheres, and in recent years, scientists have found that they are extremely common across the galaxy.

Water has been detected on other planets but they have been either too big or too hot to support life.

Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 happens to cover the wavelength range that includes water's absorption lines, making it possible for us to spot the molecules.

Whether or not life could exist on K2-18b is unknown, but the discovery of water vapor makes it a promising target for future observations-especially for the James Webb Telescope (JWST), which is now scheduled for launch in 2021 and will be able to detect "biosignatures"-and is possibly an indication that life is present". Benneke opined that the research scientists are conducting is aiming toward "being able to study real, true Earth-like planets ... And what we hope is that the habitable planets will stand out, that we will see a big difference between the planets that are habitable and the ones that are not". Although its star is much cooler than the sun, its close-in orbit-just 33 days long-means it receives nearly the same amount of heat as Earth does from the sun.

In astronomy jargon, K2-18b is a super-Earth, putting its size between Earth's and Neptune's.

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Exoplanets that are Jupiter-sized or larger are easier to find than smaller ones, particularly those closer to the size of Earth. Initially, they ran K2-18b atmosphere models with a range of atmospheric molecules that could produce absorption lines, including water (H2O), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and ammonia (NH3).

There are other ingredients that are necessary too, and there are promising signs that K2-18b might harbor more than just water vapor.

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 circles its star every 33 days, but the star - less than half the size of the Sun - is redder and fainter, providing just enough light to keep water liquid on the planet's surface.

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.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the scientific successor to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, and is scheduled to launch in 2021.

"I think the result is fantastic", said Kreidberg.

"It's a step in the right direction", Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science, physics and aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved with this study, told Space.com. All five planets appear to have a high-altitude haze that weakens water's signal from deeper within their atmospheres.

Tsiaras is optimistic about the future of exoplanet habitability research.

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