Water Detected on Planet Inside the Habitable Zone for the First Time


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The astronomers who comb through data on planetary surveys looking for potentially habitable planets are searching for worlds with certain specific characteristics. We assume that any planet capable of supporting life has to exist within the habitable zone (also sometimes called the “Goldilocks zone”) of its host star. Too close to the star and you bake, too far away and you’ll freeze. Liquid water is considered another key component required for life as we know it to exist. (Ammonia-based life has been theorized, but not yet demonstrated to be able to exist).

Astronomers now believe they’ve detected liquid water in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting within the habitable zone of its parent star. The planet, K2-18b (aka EPIC 201912552 b) orbits its red-dwarf star every 33 days. The red dwarf K2-18 is roughly 111 light-years from Earth and is ~2.7 percent as luminous as our own sun. The habitable zones of red dwarves are close to the star for this reason, and the authors note that the equilibrium temperature on K2-18b could be quite similar to Earth’s. The equilibrium temperature of a planet is the temperature it would have if it were a black body heated only by its star. The presence of an atmosphere and associated greenhouse effect means the actual temperature on the planet can be quite different from the equilibrium temperature.

HabitableZones

The habitable zone of certain planets, Earth, and Mars for reference. K2-18b not shown above.

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). The total amount of solar irradiation that Earth and K2-18b receive is approximately equal. The paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, notes that K2-18b is the least-massive planet to ever be detected with water vapor in its atmosphere.

“The water vapor detection was quite clear to us relatively early on,” lead author Björn Benneke, a professor at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets at the Université de Montréal, told Space.com in an interview. So he and his colleagues developed new analysis techniques to provide evidence that clouds made up of liquid water droplets likely exist on K2-18 b. “That’s in some ways the ‘holy grail’ of studying extrasolar planets … evidence of liquid water,” he said.

K2-12b probably isn’t habitable, at least not for humans. While the atmosphere contains water vapor, there’s evidence suggesting it’s quite thick, and that the planet may not have a surface in the first place.

While the study we’ve been discussing has not yet been peer-reviewed, Nature Astronomy has published the results of a different second study, which also confirms the presence of water vapor in K2-18b’s atmosphere. The lead scientist on the second study, Giovanna Tinetti, called these results “mind-blowing.”

“This is the first time that we have detected water on a planet in the habitable zone around a star where the temperature is potentially compatible with the presence of life,” she said.

We may not be flying off to explore K2-18b just yet — but now that we’ve found water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting inside a red dwarf’s habitable zone, we’re one step closer to finding a world that can work for creatures like ourselves. The James Webb Space Telescope, when it finally comes online, should be well-suited for exploring exoplanets like these.

Feature image by the ESA / UCL. 

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NASA Moves Forward With Europa Clipper Mission


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NASA is moving ahead with one of its most ambitious upcoming missions. The Europa Clipper has cleared a major bureaucratic hurdle, allowing the agency to begin final design and construction of the spacecraft that will explore the icy moon of Jupiter. The mission will begin to take shape over the next few years before it launches on something. NASA originally intended to use the Space Launch System (SLS), but it may need to rethink that in light of recent delays. 

Europa has been a subject of much research ever since the Voyager probes snapped photos of the moon during their flybys in the late 1970s. The surface is covered with dark streaks called lineae, which may indicate a subsurface liquid ocean. Assuming there is liquid water under the icy crust, Europa could have several times more water than all the oceans of Earth. Tidal heating from Jupiter’s gravity could keep that ocean liquid and allow life to develop. 

NASA has the Juno probe in the Jovian system right now, but it’s not designed to study the moons. The Europa Clipper would be the first mission to focus on a moon other than the one orbiting Earth. While Europa Clipper won’t land on the surface, it will make more than 40 close flybys of the moon, probing it with a suite of nine instruments to analyze the planet’s magnetic field, temperature, and more. Europa occasionally ejects plumes of water vapor into space, and Europa Clipper could analyze the chemical composition of the water if it manages to fly through one.

EuropaFeature

All NASA missions have to go through a labyrinthian approval process that begins with the preliminary design. Only after passing independent review does a project get to final design and construction. That’s where Europa Clipper is now. NASA has given the go-ahead for the team to begin designing and building the spacecraft that will fly in space. There’s another review phase before the mission can continue to assembly, testing, and launch. That’s a few years off, though. 

NASA’s announcement of the mission’s new status does not make mention of how it will launch the spacecraft. The preliminary design called for Europa Clipper to fly on the SLS, which NASA had hoped to have done several years ago. With SLS development still inching along, it’s not certain the rocket will be ready in time for the 2023 or 2025 launch windows. There has been talk of using a smaller commercial rocket, but it would take longer to get the probe to Europa aboard one of those vehicles. 

Even if it takes a little longer to reach Europa, the aliens (if they exist) will still be waiting for us. We’re looking forward to more updates on the Europa Clipper going forward.

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