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 The paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, notes that K2-18b is the least-massive planet to ever be detected with water vapor in its atmosphere.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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Astronomers Find 8 Repeating Radio Bursts From Deep Space


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The universe is rife with mysteries, but few are as perplexing as fast radio bursts (FRBs). These distant, highly energetic radio-frequency flashes were only discovered in 2007, and most observations have come from non-repeating sources. That makes it hard to study the phenomenon in detail. Astronomers knew of just a few repeating signals before, but a team of researchers reports the discovery of eight more repeating FRBs that could help us understand what’s going on out there. 

The first recorded FRBs happened in 2001, but no one spotted it in the data until a review in 2007. As the name implies, fast radio bursts last just a millisecond, and the signal here on Earth is minute — it’s similar to a cell phone calling from the moon. However, the sources are incredibly intense to be visible on Earth at all. Astronomers estimate the average FRB releases as much energy in a millisecond as the sun puts out in 80 years. 

While dozens of FRBs have cropped up in the data since that first signal, there’s only been a handful of repeating sources. The first of these is known as FRB 121102. It was alone until earlier this year when astronomers found two more repeating FRBs. The new study (available on the preprint arXiv service) from McGill University points to eight more repeating FRBs. 

The researchers used the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment radio telescope (above) to search for FRBs. They observed six new FRBs that repeated just once, and another that fired off three bursts. The last one has scientists particularly excited. Currently called FRB 180916.J0158+65, this source released ten fast radio bursts during four months of observations. 

It has been suggested that all FRBs might actually be repeating, but the time between flashes varies hugely. One of the newly identified repeaters flashes every few days, but other sources may go years between signals. To help unravel this mess, the McGill University team compared the new repeaters to non-repeating FRB signals. They found the repeaters and singles have similar “dispersion measures,” which describes the way the signal stretches as it travels across the universe. However, bursts from repeaters tend to be a few milliseconds longer than singles, and they sometimes release smaller sub-bursts after the main one. 

Knowing where FRBs will happen helps scientists get instruments pointed in the right direction to collect as much data as possible. The dominant hypotheses suggest FRB mechanisms like energetic supernovae and emissions from magnetized neutron stars known as magnetars, but no one knows for sure. With more confirmed repeating FRB sources, we may finally be closing in on an answer.

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This Alien Planet Is So Hot It Bleeds Metal


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There are thousands of confirmed exoplanets in the cosmos, and many of them are members of solar systems very different than our own. As missions like Kepler and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) have highlighted more distant worlds, astronomers have been surprised how many of them have so-called “hot Jupiters.” WASP-121b is the hottest of these close-orbiting gas giants. How hot is it? It’s so hot that heavy metals leak out as it rockets around the star. 

WASP-121b made headlines in 2017 when scientists used Hubble to characterize its stratosphere. That was a first for any exoplanet, and it showed that the planet’s temperature increases along with the altitude, just like planets in our solar system. This is a hot Jupiter with 1.2 times the mass of Jupiter itself. It orbits a star about 900 light-years away that’s slightly larger and warmer than the sun, but it’s so close that its year is only 30 Earth days long. 

Even by the standards of a hot Jupiter, WASP-121b is absolutely scorching. At 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,500 Celsius), it’s 10 times hotter than any other exoplanet yet discovered. While it’s only a little more massive than Jupiter, it’s diameter is almost twice as large because the intense heat from WASP-121 has caused it to swell. The new Hubble observations demonstrate what that intense heat means for the planet. 

The fluffed up outer layers of WASP-121b are under less gravity than the inner layers, so they fall away from the planet as it orbits. In most gas giants — even hot Jupiters — that would be largely hydrogen and helium. However, Hubble indicates that WASP-121b is losing heavy metals like magnesium and iron. Astronomers hypothesize the incredible heat is enough to lift heavy metals from the lower layers of the atmosphere upward where they can be lost to space. 

Exoplanet stratosphere

WASP-121b is too far away to image the atmosphere or trailing metallic gas directly, but Hubble can track the planet as it transits in front of its host star. The changes in light allow them to determine what’s happening to the exoplanet’s atmosphere via spectroscopy. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new analysis is what the hellish heat is doing to the planet’s shape. So much of the atmosphere is being pulled away that the planet probably looks a bit like a football. 

Scientists hope to learn more about this extreme planet in the future. The upcoming James Webb Space Telescope should be able to characterize its atmosphere even more accurately.

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