Astronomers Find Water Vapor on Faraway, Earth-Like Planet

Artist's impression. Image NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

The faraway planet - K2-18b is eight times the mass of Earth and known as a super-Earth.

"We've seen water in the atmosphere, but it's a very thick, very heavy atmosphere".

In the study, researchers used archival data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope between 2016 and 2017 that captured starlight as it passed through the atmosphere of the exoplanet.

In the search for life outside our solar system an global team of researchers has gone a step forward: astronomers have discovered for the first Time, water vapor in the atmosphere of a distant planet, orbiting its star in the so-called habitable Zone. The exoplanet, named K2-18b, is orbiting a red dwarf star 110 light-years away from Earth in the Leo constellation. This so-called Super Earth is just the right distance from its star to conceivably harbor life.

The exoplanet is orbiting within the habitable zone of dwarf star that is smaller, cooler and more active than the Sun.

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.

Many exoplanets with atmospheres are giant balls of gas, along with the handful of rugged planets for which information is available appear to have no air in any way. Further studies are required to estimate cloud coverage and the percentage of atmospheric water present. So, month after month, the researchers waited with Hubble to capture the moment of transit.

"In the next five or ten years the James Webb Space Telescope and others are being launched that are created to ... find more details of the atmosphere".

"Over 4,000 exoplanets have been detected but we don't know much about their composition and nature", said Tinetti.

The star, glowing red in the day sky, is believed to bombard the planet with radiation harsh enough to quickly inflict any human visitors with cancer, although "life there may have evolved differently" in order to survive, noted the London team's Ingo Waldmann.

The results revealed the molecular signature of water vapour, also indicating the presence of hydrogen and helium in the planet's atmosphere, researchers said. A sister planet, meanwhile, orbits closer to the star and is likely too hot to be in the habitable zone.

The surface, meanwhile, could be wet or dry. And astronomers are uncertain whether the planet has a hard surface, or whether it is covered in water.

They discovered that the unmistakable touch of water vapor.

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