Published: Tue, October 29, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Planet capable of sustaining life finally found

Planet capable of sustaining life finally found

"This is not a second Earth", says Angelos Tsiaras, leader of a team from University College London (UCL), which today published its own analysis of the publicly available Hubble data in Nature Astronomy.

"The search for habitable planets, it's very exciting, but it's here to always remind us that this (earth) is our only home and it's probably out of the question if we will be able to travel to other planets". And because the planet, dubbed K2-18 b, likely sports a temperature similar to Earth, the newfound water vapor makes the world one of the most promising candidates for follow-up studies with next-generation space telescopes.

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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.

Water vapor has been detected previously in the hot gaseous atmospheres of giant exoplanets, but finding it around smaller exoplanets has been a challenge.

The new planet is simply over double the size of Earth - in a planet classification known as a "super-Earth" - and has a temperature cool enough to have fluid water, somewhere in the range of zero and 40C.

This is the first time that scientists have found water in the atmosphere around a super-Earth.

Think your friends would be interested? Liquid water could be stable at planet's surface, and it thus sits in the habitable zone of its star. K2-18 b's parent star is quiescent by red dwarf standards, Waldmann said, but the star may still bathe the planet in higher quantities of damaging ultraviolet radiation than we're used to. Nitrogen and methane may also be present but with current technology remain undetectable, the study said.

The super-Earth is eight times the mass of Earth and was located in 2015.

Astronomer Jonti Horner of the University of Southern Queensland said the discovery was the first step towards finding smaller Earth-like planets capable of supporting life. This is when the star system is aligned just right for the planet to pass between us and its star - called a transit - causing a detectable dimming of the star's light.

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The results revealed the molecular signature of water vapour, also indicating the presence of hydrogen and helium in the planet's atmosphere, researchers said.

"With so many new super-Earths expected to be found over the next couple of decades, it is likely that this is the first discovery of many potentially habitable planets", said co-author Ingo Waldmann from UCL.

The University College London report describes the conditions on the planet known as K2-18 b.

This undated photo provided by NASA shows an image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope showing a breeding ground for stars in the Constellation Carina, about 20,000 light years from Earth.

And, according to Nature Astronomy, there is up to 50 percent of water in the planet's atmosphere - although that estimation is extremely rough, ranging from 0.01 percent. "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".

The planet's temperatures fall within bounds for the existence of liquid water and this means there is a chance there may be carbon-based life.

The atmosphere of K2-18b, twice the size of Earth, could contain rain clouds (artist's impression).

Another important element is the presence of water, vital for life as we know it.

So instead, our best bet is to do follow-up observations with two successors to Hubble: the James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to launch into orbit in 2021 but has been repeatedly delayed, and the European Space Agency's ARIEL space telescope, scheduled to launch in 2029.

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