First time: Astronomers detect water and temperatures on potentially habitable planet

Artist's impression. Image NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

In the search for life outside our solar system an worldwide team of researchers has gone a step forward: astronomers have discovered for the first Time, water vapor in the atmosphere of a distant planet, orbiting its star in the so-called habitable Zone.

The researchers noted that given the high level of activity of its red dwarf star, K2-18b may be more hostile than Earth and is likely to be exposed to more radiation.

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.

The habitable zone is the region around a star where temperatures are considered sufficiently benign for water to exist in liquid form on the surface of a planet.

"Finding water at a possibly habitable world besides Earth is incredibly exciting", stated lead-author Angelos Tsiaras, additionally from UCL. The planet closely orbits a dim red dwarf star that's about half the size of our solar system's sun.

The planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which discovered the water in K2-18B's atmosphere, may shed some light on the situation.

The team described its findings in Nature Astronomy.

Two research groups announced this week that they've found water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet 110 light-years away in the constellation Leo.

"This planet is the best candidate we have outside our solar system" in the search for signs of life, co-author Giovanna Tinetti, an astronomer at University College London, told AFP. K2-18b takes about 33 days to complete one orbit, at a distance of 0.1429 AU from its home star. However, the opening allows you to get closer to the answer to the question of how unique is our planet and if she had analogues in the Universe. K2-18b was discovered by NASA in 2015 and since then, scientists have been studying its peculiarities.

Within 10 years, new space telescopes might be able to determine whether K2-18b's atmosphere contains gases that could be produced by living organisms. The presence of water makes it the "most habitable exoplanet known to us".

They believe that other molecules including nitrogen and methane may be present but, with current observations, they remain undetectable.

Additional study will have the ability to ascertain the area of cloud coverage and the proportion of water from the air.

Depending on what future observations yield, K2-18b could turn out to be a planet with a dense, rocky core swaddled by a thick atmosphere, like Neptune-not exactly the most life-friendly of places.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of worldwide cooperation between ESA (the European Space Agency) and NASA.

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