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 The paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, notes that K2-18b is the least-massive planet to ever be detected with water vapor in its atmosphere.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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Curiosity Spots Unexpectedly Complex Martian Rock


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NASA’s Curiosity rover has seen a lot of rocks. In fact, that’s almost all it sees on the surface of Mars. Recently, the rover spotted a rock so strange that the team decided to move in for a closer look. The so-called “Strathdon” has dozens of sedimentary layers squished together, a geological quirk scientists didn’t expect to see on Mars. This points to a potentially complicated and watery past in the region explored by Curiosity. 

Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, setting up shop in Gale Crater. Its goal was to make its way to nearby Mount Sharp and roll up the slope, examining the geology on the way. It reached the base of the mountain in 2014. The team has made numerous pit stops along the way to the summit in order to take a closer look at interesting regions. Currently, the rover is puttering around in an area called the “clay-bearing unit.” In the distant past, it was most likely home to streams and lakes, the only remnants of which are clay mineral deposits. 

While exploring the clay-bearing unit, Curiosity happened upon a strange boulder partially buried in the ground — the Strathdon. The rock formed from many layers of compressed sediment that had hardened into a brittle, wavy mass. It’s a stark contrast from the flat layers of lake sediment Curiosity has seen elsewhere on Mars. 

Strathdon as seen from 4 inches away.

Curiosity approached the Strathdon, taking a close-up mosaic image for scientists back on Earth to examine. The team speculates that the structure of this boulder means the clay-bearing unit has a much more complex and dynamic geological history than anyone expected. A combination of flowing water and wind could be responsible for the existence of this formation. This region might have been quite hospitable to life many eons ago, but Curiosity can’t say for certain — that’s for the next rover to find out. 

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is being assembled at JPL as we speak. It has a robotic arm, wheels, and some of its many, many cameras. The still-unnamed rover uses the same chassis as Curiosity, but it will carry instruments that are better able to search for signs of ancient life on the red planet. The launch is scheduled for next summer when Earth and Mars are lined up for an easy journey. Mars 2020 will join Curiosity on the surface in February 2021.

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