Scientists uncover 'first' water on potentially habitable super-Earth

Nasa exoplanet Space research

NASA has announced that for the first time, Hubble Space Telescope has discovered an exoplanet with water vapor that exists within the habitable zone of its star. The total amount of solar irradiation that Earth and K2-18b receive is approximately equal. It resides in a habitable zone - the region around a star in which liquid water could potentially pool on the surface of a rocky planet.

However, its red dwarf star is quite active which means it could be exposing the planet to lots of radiation, which would make K2-18b a much more hostile place than 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 exoplanet was first spotted in 2015 by NASA's Kepler spacecraft but analysis of data has revealed new details that have not been seen on a super-earth before.

Sunlight from its parent star, K2-18, shining through its atmosphere was captured by the telescope's Wide Field Camera.

More than 4,000 exoplanets of all types and sizes have been detected overall. 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.

First author Dr Angelos Tsiaras said: "Finding water in a potentially habitable world other than Earth is incredibly exciting".

Both teams found that water vapor is nearly certainly present in the atmosphere of this super-Earth. And at just 110 light-years away, this super-Earth seemed a good candidate for further studies of its atmosphere.

While the study we've been discussing has not yet been peer-reviewed, Nature Astronomy has published the results of a different second study, which also confirms the presence of water vapor in K2-18b's atmosphere. Signs of atmospheric water, oxygen and methane would all be signs that a planet may support life.

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

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

Given the high level of activity of its red dwarf star, K2-18b may be more hostile to life as we know it than Earth, as it is likely to be exposed to more high-energy radiation.

However, some scientists who were not a part of the research, said the planet should not be described as "habitable". The results revealed the molecular signature of water vapor, and also suggest the presence of hydrogen and helium in the planet's atmosphere.

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. 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.

They hope that newer technology, such as the James Webb Space Telescope due to launch in March 2021, will be able to unlock more secrets beyond our solar system.

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.

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