Water found for first time on potentially habitable planet

K2-18b has a mass eight times greater's than that of planet Earth

With K2-18 b being 110 light years away, it is not really a planet we could visit - even with tiny robotic probes - in the foreseeable future.

This artist's impression shows the planet K2-18b, its host star and an accompanying planet in this system.

The results are doubly exciting, Tsiaras noted, given this is not only the first Super Earth with water detected in its atmosphere but the planet also resides within the habitable zone of its star.

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

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.

The exoplanet was first spotted in 2015 by NASA's Kepler spacecraft but analysis of data has revealed new details that have not been seen on a super-earth before. K2-18b may not be an exact replica of Earth, but in several ways, it comes much closer than previously known water-vapor-containing exoplanets, Nikole Lewis, an astronomer at Cornell University who was not involved in either study, told Lee Billings at Scientific American.

What the scientists are saying with this measurement is that Earth and this other planet start in roughly the same place, as far as their respective equilibrium temperatures are concerned (Earth is 257K, this K2-18b is 265K +/- 5K).

Planets up to about twice Earth's diameter are called super-Earths, but when they get bigger than that they tend to have thick atmospheres more like gas giants, so we call those mini-Neptunes (for more about this distinction, my friend and fellow science communicator Emily Lakdawalla posted a fantastic thread on Twitter about it).

More than 4000 exoplanets of all types and sizes have been detected overall.

Why K2-18b can't be a planet where we can live?

"Finding water on a potentially habitable world other than Earth is incredibly exciting", said Angelos Tsiaras, a research associate working at University College London's (UCL) department of physics and astronomy.

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

The results revealed the molecular signature of water vapour as well as highlighting the presence of hydrogen and helium in the planet's atmosphere.

Their research was published on arXiv which found compelling evidence of the existence of water vapour on the planet.

Though K2-18b is likely solid at its core, the temperatures and pressures at the "surface" would be so high that few complex molecules would survive, let alone any life forms.

Further studies are required to estimate cloud coverage and the percentage of atmospheric water present, the researchers said.

It will also require many more observations to be sure that it is a habitable planet. K2-18b orbits the dwarf star K2-18 in the Leo constellation, given the high level of activity of its star, K2-18b may be more hostile than Earth and is likely to be exposed to more radiation, NASA said.

So the only option is to wait for the next generation of space telescopes to be launched in the 2020s and to look for gasses in the planet's atmosphere that could only be produced by living organisms, the report in BBC News had stated quoting UCL's Dr Ingo Waldmann.

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