Water discovered for first time on planet that may be habitable

A handout artist's impression released by ESA  Hubble shows the K2-18b super Earth

Although the planet sits in the habitable zone, scientists say that instruments available at present are not able to determine any signs of life.

"Finding water in a potentially habitable world other than Earth is incredibly exciting", said Angelos Tsiaras of University College London, the study's lead author, in a statement.

Exoplanet science has literally opened new worlds to study, with planets populating the galaxy unlike anything in our small solar system.

The planet orbits a red dwarf star, which is smaller and cooler than our Sun. None have been confirmed yet, however.

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.

Of the more than 4,000 exoplanets detected to date, this is the first known to combine a rocky surface and an atmosphere with water.

"The fact we can now make observations that allow us to work out what's in the atmosphere of a planet twice the Earth's radius, orbiting a star that is just over a quadrillion kilometres away, is just incredible", Horner said. But the range extends to include temperatures much colder or warmer than Earth because of the constraints of their data.

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.

They then modelled the atmosphere using three different approaches: cloudless, with water vapour in a hydrogen-helium atmosphere; cloudless, with water vapour, hydrogen-helium and molecular nitrogen; and cloudy, with water vapour and hydrogen-helium.

Astronomers don't know exactly what K2-18b looks like, but the modeled pressures and temperatures of the planet suggest that clouds may form in its skies, possibly with liquid rain. Life on Earth would not be possible without our atmosphere, which also provides numerous chemicals essential to life, like carbon and nitrogen.

"Our discovery makes K2-18 b one of the most interesting targets for future study", said Giovanna Tinetti, study co-author and principal investigator for ARIEL.

This image taken aboard the International Space Station, shows the limb of the Earth at the bottom transitioning into the orange-colored stratosphere, the lowest and most dense portion of the Earth's atmosphere.

Additionally, K2-18 b orbits a red dwarf star alongside a second, smaller exoplanet (K2-18 c). Over time, the flow of charged particles and plasma from the sun stripped Mars' atmosphere away.

Tsiaras added, however, that the planet should not be considered an "Earth 2.0", because "it is significantly heavier and has a different atmospheric composition".

"The Earth really stands out in our own Solar System".

Thomas Beatty, an exoplanet atmosphere researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson who was not involved with this research, said that for this system, "this appears to be the limit of what we can do with current facilities". For now, there's no way to know what conditions on its surface are like.

Still, the question remained: Does the liquid water that could exist there actually exist there?

Specifically, the paper suggests K2-18 b has a temperature between about -100 °F (-73 °C) and 116 °F (47 °C). While other, larger, gaseous planets - called hot Jupiters - have revealed some hints about the chemical elements contained in their atmospheres, this is the first time water vapour has been detected on a potentially habitable planet, an historic first.

Next-generation telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2021, and the European ARIEL mission in 2028 will explore these questions in much more detail. That's because the new tools will be able to observe light across a broader range of wavelengths.

However, more tests are needed to prove this.

At present, we only have one example of life in the universe-Earth.

But, he said, just because a planet is in the habitable zone, doesn't mean it is habitable.

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