Water detected in atmosphere of potentially habitable super-Earth

News              Water out Earth? Researchers find vapour in exoplanet’s air                            By          admin

About 110 light years from Earth, an exoplanet eight times the mass of Earth orbits a star.

Water vapor has turned up on planets outside our solar system before, but none of those were anything close to liveable.

More precisely, it marks the first time scientists have found water in the atmosphere around a super-Earth - as opposed to a gas giant - orbiting a star within its "habitable zone", just the right distance for liquid water to potentially exist on the surface. "This is still science fiction", Tsiaras said, noting that K2-18b orbits a dwarf star in the constellation Leo that lies 100 light years from Earth. This is now the only known exoplanet that contains water and also temperatures that are within the range necessary for supporting life, making it a key discovery for future potential missions. The liquid was found using the Hubble Space Telescope, which analysed starlight filtered through K2-18b's atmosphere.

Dr Tsiaras described the finding as "incredibly exciting" and said: "It is significantly heavier and it has a different atmospheric composition".

Furthermore, it is argued that K2-18b is more of a super-Neptune than a super-Earth as its characteristics are reminiscent of Neptune than Earth. 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. We assume that any planet capable of supporting life has to exist within the habitable zone (also sometimes called the "Goldilocks zone") of its host star.

"This represents the biggest step yet taken toward our ultimate goal of finding life on other planets, of proving that we are not alone", said the study's lead astronomer, Bjorn Benneke of the University of Montreal. The red dwarf K2-18 is roughly 111 light-years from Earth and is ~2.7 percent as luminous as our own sun. Their study, which appears in Nature Astronomy, also suggests that K2-18b's atmosphere contains hydrogen and helium. The researchers used self-developed open source algorithms for compilation and analysis of the data from Hubble.

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However, the discovery brings astronomers closer to answering the fundamental question of how unique Earth is in the universe, the scientists said. All five planets appear to have a high-altitude haze that weakens water's signal from deeper within their atmospheres.

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

Understanding whether a planet could host life requires a lot more information.

In addition to water, Hubble also detected traces of hydrogen, an observation that intrigued Tom Louden, a physicist at the University of Warwick and an expert on exoplanetary atmospheres.

That's largely because the researchers are taking a transmission spectrum of the planet as it passes in front of its host star - that is, they're looking at the star's light as it passes through a thin sliver of the planet's atmosphere.

Yet Giovanna Tinetti, a colleague of Tsiaras's at University College London and a co-author of the Nature study, suggested it's still possible that there is liquid water somewhere below the atmosphere. Ultimately, though, the broader range of wavelengths and higher-resolution spectra that the James Webb Space Telescope will offer will be key to exploring this world.

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