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Water found on habitable exoplanet, say scientists

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A handout of an artist’s impression of the K2-18b super-Earth, the only super-Earth exoplanet known to host both water and temperatures that could support life. M KORNMESSER/Hubble/AFP

Water found on habitable exoplanet, say scientists

Water has been discovered for the first time in the atmosphere of an exoplanet with Earth-like temperatures that could support life as we know it, scientists revealed Wednesday.

Eight times the mass of Earth and twice as big, K2-18b orbits in its star’s “habitable zone” at a distance – neither too far nor too close – where water can exist in liquid form, they reported in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“This planet is the best candidate we have outside our solar system” in the search for signs of life, co-author Giovanna Tinetti, an astronomer at University College London, said.

“We cannot assume that it has oceans on the surface but it is a real possibility.”

Of the more than 4,000 exoplanets detected to date, this is the first known to combine a rocky surface and an atmosphere with water.

Most exoplanets with atmospheres are giant balls of gas, and the handful of rocky planets for which data is available seem to have no atmosphere at all.

Even if they did, most Earth-like planets are too far from their stars to have liquid water or so close that any water has evaporated.

Discovered in 2015, K2-18b is one of the hundreds of so-called “super-Earths” – planets with less than 10 times the mass of ours – spotted by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.

Future space missions are expected to detect hundreds more in the coming decades.

“Finding water in a potentially habitable world other than Earth is incredibly exciting,” said Angelos Tsiaras, the lead author, also from UCL. K2-18b is not ‘Earth 2.0’. However, it brings us closer to answering the fundamental question: is the Earth unique?” he said.

Working with spectroscopic data captured in 2016 and 2017 by the Hubble Space Telescope, Tsiaras and his team used open-source algorithms to analyse the starlight filtered through K2-18b’s atmosphere.

They found the unmistakable signature of water vapour. Exactly how much remains uncertain, but computer modelling suggested concentrations between 0.1 and 50 per cent.

By comparison, the percentage of water vapour in Earth’s atmosphere varies between 0.2 per cent above the poles and up to four per cent in the tropics.

There was also evidence of hydrogen and helium as well. Nitrogen and methane may also be present, but with current technology they remain undetectable, the study said.

Further research will be able to determine the extent of cloud coverage and the percentage of water in the atmosphere.

Water is crucial in the search for life, in part because it carries oxygen.

“Life, as we know, is based on water,” said Tinetti.

K2-18b orbits a red dwarf star about 110 light-years distant – a million billion kilometres – in the Leo constellation of the Milky Way, and is probably bombarded by more destructive radiation than Earth.

“This likely is the first of many discoveries of potentially habitable planets,” said UCL astronomer Ingo Waldmann, also a co-author.

“This is not only because super-Earths like K2-18b are the most common planets in our galaxy, but also because red dwarfs – stars smaller than our Sun – are the most common stars.”

The new generation of space-based stargazing instruments led by the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s Ariel mission will be able to describe exoplanet atmospheres in far greater detail.

Ariel, slated for a 2028 launch, will canvas some 1,000 planets, a large enough sampling to look for patterns and identify outliers.

“Over 4,000 exoplanets have been detected but we don’t know much about their composition and nature,” said Tinetti.

“By observing a large sample of planets, we hope to reveal secrets about their chemistry, formation and evolution.”

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