Water found on habitable alien exoplanet for first ever time, scientists say

Andrew Griffin

Scientists have found water vapour on a "super-Earth" for the first time ever, marking a major step forward in the search for alien life.

The exoplanet, known as K2-18b, is perhaps the best ever candidate for being host to alien life that humanity has ever seen.

“This represents the biggest step yet taken towards our ultimate goal of finding life on other planets, of proving that we are not alone," said Université de Montréal astronomer Björn Benneke, who led the study. "Thanks to our observations and our climate model of this planet, we have shown that its water vapour can condense into liquid water. This is a first."

The discovery was made possible by analysing data to give us details of the super-Earth that have never been seen before. Though the exoplanet was first spotted in 2015, new research has finally allowed scientists to identify water.

K2-18b is classed as a super-Earth because it is bigger than our Earth – twice as big in fact, as well as eight times heavier.

Current equipment is only able to determine basic factors such as distance, mass and temperature but sophisticated tools developed at University College London have been able to translate existing data from the Hubble Space Telescope to make sense of the unique molecule signatures of water vapour.

K2-18b is too far away for astronomers to see, but they can look at how starlight is filtered through the planet's atmosphere as it passes around its own sun, called K2-18.

The planet is a lot closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun, meaning it only takes around 33 days to transit.

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"It's the only planet outside our solar system that we know has the correct temperature, an atmosphere and water," said first author Dr Angelos Tsiaras.

"Of course, K2-18b is not a second Earth, because it is a planet that is much bigger, has a different atmospheric composition. It's orbiting a completely different star, so it doesn't look like Earth.

"The search for habitable planets, it's very exciting, but it's here to always remind us that this (Earth) is our only home and it's probably out of the question if we will be able to travel to other planets."

Although the planet sits in the habitable zone, scientists say that instruments available at present are not able to determine any signs of life.

It will also require many more observations to be sure that it is a habitable planet.

Scientists, who have published their findings in the Nature Astronomy journal after more than a year of work, believe that the water content could be as low as 0.01% or as high as 50%.

"We don't know how much water there is; however, what these models clearly say is that there is an atmosphere and that there is water there," said co-author Dr Ingo Waldmann.

Researchers do not think K2-18b is the only super-Earth like this and expect to find others with similar characteristics among more than 4,000 exoplanets that have already been discovered.

They hope that newer technology, such as the James Webb Space Telescope due to launch in March 2021, will be able to unlock more secrets beyond our solar system.

"We are looking forward to the next generation of telescopes and go even further," Dr Tsiaras added.

Co-author Professor Giovanna Tinetti said: "Our discovery makes K2-18b one of the most interesting targets for future study."

Additional reporting by Press Association

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