Hubble Space Telescope Detects Water Vapor on Habitable-Zone Exoplanet for 1st Time

Hubble Space Telescope Detects Water Vapor on Habitable-Zone Exoplanet for 1st Time
This artist’s impression shows the planet K2-18b, its host star and an accompanying planet in this system. K2-18b is now the only super-Earth exoplanet known to host both water and temperatures that could support life. UCL researchers used archive data from 2016 and 2017 captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and developed open-source algorithms to analyze the starlight filtered through K2-18b’s atmosphere. The results revealed the molecular signature of water vapor, also indicating the presence of hydrogen and helium in the planet’s atmosphere.  Credits: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL –  For the first time ever researchers have detected water vapor signatures in the atmosphere of an exoplanet beyond our solar system that resides in the “habitable zone,” the region around a star in which liquid water could potentially pool on the surface of a rocky planet, according to NASA.
The discovery of the first exoplanet with water vapor in a habitable zone was made by scientists using date gathered by the Earth orbiting NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
The distant planet called K2-18b is a so-called super Earth about 8 times the mass of Earth and orbiting a small red dwarf star and located about 110 light-years away in the constellation Leo.  
“Astronomers at the Center for Space Exochemistry Data at the University College London in the United Kingdom used data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to find water vapor in the atmosphere of K2-18b.” NASA said in a statement. 
It was first detected by NASA’s Kepler space telescope.
Watch this NASA video:

Video Caption:  With data from the Hubble Space Telescope, water vapor has been detected in the atmosphere of an exoplanet within the habitable zone of its host star. K2-18b, which is eight times the mass of Earth, is the only planet orbiting a star outside the solar system (or “exoplanet”) within the habitable zone. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center


“If confirmed by further studies, this will be the only exoplanet known to have both water in its atmosphere and temperatures that could sustain liquid water on a rocky surface. Liquid water would only be possible if the planet turns out to be terrestrial in nature, rather than resembling a small version of Neptune.”
However, the planet called K2-18b is in a high radiation environment with a much higher surface gravity compared to Earth and thus not be entirely conducive to life.
“The team used archive data from 2016 and 2017 captured by Hubble and developed open-source algorithms to analyze the host star’s light filtered through K2-18b’s atmosphere. The results revealed the molecular signature of water vapor, and also suggest the presence of hydrogen and helium in the planet’s atmosphere.

Nevertheless, this is an exciting find and further follow-up observations are underway to confirm the first observations of water vapor on an Earth like world.

NASA’s upcoming James Webb SpaceTelescope will be focused on worlds like these to obtain highly detailed observations of the atmospheres of exoplanets far beynd what is possible today.NASA will launch its next rover to Mars in July 2020 to search for signs of life on the Red Planet.

Be sure to check our our recent story about Hubble’s glamorous snapshot of Saturn – which holds 2 moons that vour potentially harbor microbial life forms. 

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Ken Kremer

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of NASA, SpaceX, ULA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and more space and mission reports direct from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news. Dr. Kremer is a research scientist and journalist based in the KSC area, active in outreach and interviewed regularly on TV and radio about space topics. Ken’s photos are for sale and he is available for lectures and outreach events.

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