Water vapor detected on potentially habitable Super-Earth

This artist’s impression shows the planet K2-18b its host star and an accompanying planet in this

There are other ingredients that are necessary too, and there are promising signs that K2-18b might harbor more than just water vapor. This is the first time water has been found in the atmosphere of a planet within this zone, making it the most habitable exoplanet we know of so far. Getting to know K2-18b a bit better, she said, "will be important for understanding the potential habitability of smaller "Earth-sized" planets".

That's very cool! Mind you, the presence of water vapor has been seen in other exoplanets (like say this one), but this is the first time it's been seen in an exoplanet in its star's habitable zone.

Future telescopes on Earth and in space should help uncover more Super Earths orbiting red dwarf stars - believed to be the most common planets and stars in our Milky Way galaxy.

While light from the sun takes several minutes to reach Earth, light from K2-18b's star takes a century to reach our planet, "so for us to travel there is impossible", he said.

An interesting characteristic of super-Earths is that majority are likely to be water worlds-terrestrial planets covered entirely by a deep global ocean.

More than 4000 exoplanets of all types and sizes have been detected overall. It's rocky and Earth-like, measuring 2.25 times wider and eight times more massive than our home planet.

"Finding water in a potentially habitable world other than Earth is incredibly exciting", said lead-author Angelos Tsiaras, also from UCL.

Both teams found that water vapor is nearly certainly present in the atmosphere of this super-Earth. It orbits a red dwarf star 110 light-years away from Earth in the Leo constellation. The team's analysis of eight of these transits, as well as transits observed by the Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes, will appear in the Astronomical Journal.

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Recorded with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, the observations additionally hint at the presence of hydrogen in the atmosphere by using specific algorithms.

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

However, the discovery brings astronomers closer to answering the fundamental question of how unique Earth is in the universe, the scientists said.

The finding makes the world - which is called K2-18b - a plausible candidate in the search for alien life.

The researchers noted that given the high level of activity of its red dwarf star, K2-18b may be more hostile than Earth and is likely to be exposed to more radiation.

"It is likely that this is the first of many discoveries of potentially habitable planets", said UCL astronomer Ingo Waldmann, also a co-author. The results revealed the molecular signature of water vapor, and also suggest the presence of hydrogen and helium in the planet's atmosphere.

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 next generation of space telescopes, including the James Webb Space Telescope, will be able to characterize exoplanet atmospheres in more detail.

Yet Giovanna Tinetti, a colleague of Tsiaras's at University College London and a co-author of the Nature study, suggested it's still possible that there is liquid water somewhere below the atmosphere.

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