Planet within habitable zone contains water; states finding

Water vapor has been detected in the atmosphere of a super Earth with habitable temperatures

In a milestone for exoplanet research, two independent teams of astronomers have detected water vapor in the atmosphere of the planet K2-18b. It is suggested that K2-18b is the first-ever exoplanet with water found on it.

This enabled us to make the first successful detection of an atmosphere with water vapour around a non-gaseous planet, which is also located within the habitable zone of its star.

The planet, K2-18B, is eight times the size of Earth and, hence, has more gravity.

Water is crucial to life as we know it, so it's one of the key things astronomers look out for on exoplanets.

Astronomers at the Centre for Space Exochemistry Data at the University College London (UCL) detected water vapour in the atmosphere of the K2-18b "exoplanet", a planet outside our solar system, between the mass of Earth and Neptune, that also has the right 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.

According to NASA, scientists used Hubble data on the exoplanet from 2016 and 2017 with open-source algorithms to study the super-Earth's atmosphere. And now, water vapor has been detected in the atmosphere of a potentially habitable exoplanet for the first time.

Even if they did, most Earth-like planets are too far from their stars to have liquid water or so close that any H2O has evaporated.

"Finding water in a potentially habitable world other than Earth is incredibly exciting", said lead-author Angelos Tsiaras, also from UCL. On Tuesday, Benneke's team posted its own analysis of K2-18b on the preprint server arXiv, which hosts academic papers not yet published in peer-reviewed journals.

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The star K2-18 is a red dwarf, smaller, cooler, and much fainter than the Sun. The London data suggest water vapor makes up anywhere between 0.01% and 50% of the atmosphere - "quite a big range", Waldmann acknowledged.

"However, it brings us closer to answering the fundamental question: Is the Earth unique?".

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. K2-18b receives about as much radiation as Earth, and it features temperatures comparable to what we experience here, noted the researchers at the press conference.

There's still a chance it could be bathed in a huge ocean, though, which would be more suitable for life, Abel Mendez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, who was not involved in either study, told Daniel Oberhaus at WIRED.

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.

The new generation of space-based star gazing 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.

Benneke stated that although water exists in liquid water clouds on K2-18 b, the rain falls through thick gas before it hits the surface, heating it so it becomes gas before it reaches the planet's surface.

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