Water Detected on Planet Inside the Habitable Zone for the First Time

Water vapor has been spotted on a “habitable zone” planet 110 light years away

Water vapor has been spotted on a “habitable zone” planet 110 light years away

The total amount of solar irradiation that Earth and K2-18b receive is approximately equal.

If confirmed by further studies, this will be the only planet known to have both water in its atmosphere and temperatures that could sustain liquid water on a rocky surface. "The pressure at any surface of this planet is likely 10 times higher than the deepest point of the ocean in Earth", Erin M May, who studies exoplanet atmospheres at the University of MI, in the U.S., wrote on Twitter. K2-18b, which is eight times the mass of Earth, is the only planet orbiting a star outside the solar system (or "exoplanet") known to have both water and temperatures that could support life. NASA points out that K2-18b is one of hundreds of previously discovered super-Earth exoplanets; it was identified by the Kepler Space Telescope back in 2015 and later observed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Now, scientists have found signatures of water vapour in the atmosphere of K2-18b.

Planets up to about twice Earth's diameter are called super-Earths, but when they get bigger than that they tend to have thick atmospheres more like gas giants, so we call those mini-Neptunes (for more about this distinction, my friend and fellow science communicator Emily Lakdawalla posted a fantastic thread on Twitter about it). Over 4,000 exoplanets have been detected but we don't know much about their composition and nature.

To qualify as a super-Earth, a planet needs to have a mass that is between those of Earth and Neptune.

The lead author of the other study, Björn Benneke, a professor at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets at the Université de Montréal, told Space.com, "The water vapor detection was quite clear to us relatively early on".

Scientists have found a planet 110 million light years from Earth that could have water on its surface. The red dwarf K2-18 is roughly 111 light-years from Earth and is ~2.7 percent as luminous as our own sun.

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Dr Tsiaras and the rest of the UCL team developed an algorithm to analyse data that had already been taken from K2-18b's atmosphere.

The results revealed the molecular signature of water vapour, also indicating the presence of hydrogen and helium in the planet's atmosphere, researchers said. However, it brings us closer to answering the fundamental question: "Is the Earth unique?", Tsiaras said.

"Our discovery makes K2-18b one of the most interesting targets for future study".

However, some scientists who were not a part of the research, said the planet should not be described as "habitable". At such a close proximity, it might not sound like K2-18b is inside the habitable zone, but because red dwarfs emit low levels of radiation, their habitable zones are much nearer compared to systems like ours.

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.

Researchers must wait for more sophisticated tools, such as the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope, to reveal more details about the distant world.

Ingo Waldman, on the University College London team, explained that three different scenarios fit the data equally well: The atmosphere could be pure hydrogen with lots of water, or the atmosphere could contain hydrogen and nitrogen with just a little bit of water.

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