Water found 110 light years away

Pablo Tucker
October 28, 2019

The result is that the Nature Astronomy paper, which is peer-reviewed and more conservative in its findings, concludes there's a significant concentration of water within K2-18b's atmosphere, though the researchers speculate it could make up as little as 0.01% of the atmosphere or as much as 50%.

However, given the high level of activity of its host star with high-energy radiation, the planet is believed to be more hostile to life as it is on Earth.

The atmosphere of K2-18b, twice the size of Earth, could contain rain clouds (artist's impression). Depending on what kind of star it is, the distance varies.

Tsiaras and his team did it using the WFC3 instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope.

As a part of the years-long research, water on an exoplanet has been discovered by scientists at the University of College London (UCL). For instance, thanks to a sophisticated algorithm, the researchers were able to tease out the undeniable signal of water vapor in the atmosphere of K2-18 b, But they couldn't tell exactly how much water vapor is really there.

Ground-based telescopes might be able to make some useful observations, but it's actually very hard to observe an atmosphere with water through an atmosphere with water.

It's a large range, to be sure. "We need wider wavelengths to cover it".

The team behind the discovery looked through the planets discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope between 2016 and 2017. That, the authors say, may blow the search for atmospheres around potentially habitable exoplanets wide open.

That's because this 33-day orbit is right smack-bang in the middle of the star's habitable zone - not too hot that liquid water would evaporate from the surface, and not so cold that it would totally freeze.

"The first evidence for an atmospheric feature in a habitable-zone planet is just fantastic", said exoplanetary researcher Ryan Cloutier of the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University.

"This study contributes to our understanding of habitable worlds beyond our Solar System and marks a new era in exoplanet research, crucial to ultimately place the Earth, our only home, into the greater picture of the Cosmos", he added. "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". Astronomers have used Hubble to observe several smaller exoplanets, between the size of Neptune and Earth, but they've come up empty. So, if simply finding them is so challenging, determining the molecules in their atmospheres is even more hard. Currently, water remains a necessary condition for the existence of life according to exobiologists, until a completely different form of life is identified.

And water vapour doesn't necessarily mean water exists on the surface.

If there is water and temperatures are similar to Earth, there is a high chance the planet could harbor carbon-based life.

Astronomers have finally uncovered water vapor in the atmosphere of a super-Earth exoplanet orbiting within the habitable zone of its star. The James Webb Space Telescope, when it finally comes online, should be well-suited for exploring exoplanets like these.

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

It's definitely the smallest and coolest planet that we've had a glimpse into the atmosphere of so far. "These types of studies are always tricky", says Cloutier. This is the first time we've found the trifecta.

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