Hubble just detected water vapor around a distant exoplanet

Water discovered on ‘Super-Earth’ raises first real hope of alien life

Twice as large as our own planet and eight times as massive, K2-18b possesses powerful gravity that would make it hard to walk upon.

The University College London scientists say it's the only exoplanet known so far to have both water and temperatures needed for life, making it a prime candidate for potential life.

"The only question that we're trying to ask here, and we're pushing forward, is the question of habitability", Tsiaras said, adding that examining the planet further could also help answer the question: "Is the Earth unique?" Now, astronomers have revealed that one of those planets has an atmosphere containing water vapour.

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This is also the first time that water vapor has been detected in the atmosphere of an exoplanet that is not a gas giant.

"We don't really know how much water there is", said Angelos Tsiaras, lead author of the study.

This massive range stems from the fact that, with Hubble observations, researchers can only identify a water signature, the "fingerprint" observed using transit spectroscopy; they can't tell how much water is there, Giovanna Tinetti, a researcher on this study and a professor of astrophysics at UCL, said during a September 10 news conference.

So far, attempts to gauge the atmospheres of terrestrial super-Earths have failed, either because of thick clouds (as was the case for Gliese 1214 b and HD 97658 b), a lightweight, featureless atmosphere of just hydrogen and helium (as for 55 Cancri e), or no atmosphere and no clouds at all (as for six of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system). This revealed strong evidence of water vapor-potentially accounting for up to 50 percent of the atmosphere.

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks on-stage during a product launch event at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino California
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks on-stage during a product launch event at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino California

The planet orbits the cool dwarf star K2-18, which is about 110 light years from Earth in the Leo constellation.

It is a thrilling discovery for scientists searching the universe for extraterrestrial life. Thanks to advances in ground-and space-based observatories, especially the Kepler Space Telescope, which was launched in 2009 and operated for nine years, the population of known exoplanets - or planets orbiting other stars - has exploded to more than 4,000, with about another 4,000 detected but yet to be confirmed.

But what's most important is that K2-18 b resides within the star's habitable zone, a region around a star where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface. "It makes this particular super-Earth planet a promising target for future missions which will look at exoplanet atmospheres, including JWST and ARIEL", Coates told Newsweek. But while the temperature range and presence of water are good signs, K2-18 b isn't necessarily habitable. "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".

In a new paper published in Nature Astronomy, researchers explain that the light passing through the planet's atmosphere offered clues as to what it might contain. Those telescopes will also help us achieve a much more concrete sense of the water content and structure of K2-18b-whether the planet turns out to be a super-Earth or a mini-Neptune.

Prof Giovanna Teneti, the lead scientist on the project, said the discovery made on the planet named K2-18B, was 'mind blowing'.

K2-18b may be able to support life. Over 4000 exoplanets have been detected but we don't know much about their composition and nature. Our biases about habitability, he noted, are now very "Earth-centric", which is reasonable given that Earth is the only habitable planet we know of. The data are not precise enough to narrow down this range or to detect other molecules the atmosphere might have, the researchers found.

As of now, the researchers have concluded that there is some quantity of water and likely hydrogen in the planet's atmosphere.

The next generation of space telescopes, including the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope and ESA's ARIEL mission, will be able to characterise atmospheres in more detail as they will carry more advanced instruments.

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