Hubble spots liquid water on a ‘super-Earth’ 110 light-years away – gpgmail


Water is not uncommon to find in our galaxy in ice or gaseous form, but liquid water is quite rare — and liquid and gaseous water on an Earth-like exoplanet? That’s never been observed… until now. Astronomers spotted this celestial unicorn, called K2-18 b, using the venerable Hubble space telescope.

K2-18 b is a “super-Earth,” a planet with a mass and size approximately like our own. Not only that, it exists in its solar system’s “habitable zone,” meaning a range of temperatures where liquid water can continuously exist. It’s about 110 light-years away in the constellation Leo.

Of course there are many super-Earths, and many planets in habitable zones, and many planets with water — but they’re never one and the same. This is the first time we’ve found the trifecta.

Researchers used past Hubble data to examine the spectral signature of light shining from K2-18 b’s sun through its atmosphere. They found evidence of both liquid and gaseous water, suggesting a water cycle like our own: evaporation, condensation, and all that.

To be clear, this is not an indication of little green men or anything like that; K2-18 b’s red dwarf sun is absolutely bombarding it with radiation. “It is highly unlikely that this world is habitable in any way that we understand based on life as we know it,” the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Hannah Wakeford told Nature.

Too bad — but that wasn’t what scientists were hoping to find. The discovery of an Earth-like planet with an Earth-like water cycle in the habitable zone is amazing, especially considering the relatively small number of exoplanets that have been examined this way. The galaxy is full of them, after all, so finding one with these qualities suggests there are plenty more where K2-18 b came from.

This discovery is an interesting one in another fashion: It was done, like lots of others are these days, by performing after-the-fact analysis on publicly available data (from 2016 and 2017), and the analysis used open-source algorithms. Essentially both the data and the methods were out there in the open — though naturally it takes serious scientific effort to actually put them together.

Two papers were published on K2-18 b, one from the University of Montreal and one from University College London. The former appeared on preprint site Arxiv yesterday, and the other was published in the journal Nature Astronomy today.


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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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