In other words, it might rain. “The temperature is just right—or potentially right—for liquid water to exist,” Benneke says.
That doesn’t mean, however, that liquid water does exist on K2-18b. The Hubble data reveals only that water vapor exists in its atmosphere, and cannot tell astronomers how much there is.
The detection is another milestone in a field that is so packed with exoplanets that the most exciting work in exoplanet research now focuses on studying their atmospheres.
And just like the earliest days of exoplanet discoveries, it’s a competitive field; Benneke published his team’s findings the night before a separate team was scheduled to announce the same detection.
Both papers analyzed Hubble observations that Benneke had designed and requested from the space telescope, but that were made public and accessible to all astronomers. The second team published their findings in the journal Nature Astronomy today, but Benneke, whose paper has been submitted to The Astronomical Journal but not yet accepted, decided to beat them to it by posting his team’s paper on arXiv, an online repository for preprints. The second team, led by Angelos Tsiaras, an astronomer at the University College London, reports the same detection, but stops short of suggesting there’s liquid water suspended in the exoplanet’s atmosphere.
It is tempting to take these papers and their buzz phrases—exoplanet! water vapor! habitable zone!—and jump right to the idea that K2-18b could harbor extraterrestrial life. But it would take a lot more than a whiff of water vapor to suggest that another world meets the conditions conducive to life.
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Despite some similarities in the temperatures of their orbits, K2-18b is not like Earth. Its atmosphere is thick and puffy with hydrogen, which suggests that the planet probably doesn’t have a rocky surface. “If you have a lot of hydrogen in your atmosphere, the pressure keeps increasing as you go deeper and deeper,” says Laura Kreidberg, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who studies exoplanet atmospheres, and who was not involved in this research. “You get to a liquid hydrogen layer before you reach a rocky surface.”
These conditions mean that K2-18b is more similar to Neptune, the kind of planet where life is unlikely. The detection of water vapor on an exoplanet in its star’s habitable zone is an exciting start, but astronomers want to find chemical signatures that are less ubiquitous in the universe. “Oxygen would be the real exciting thing to detect—because that is actually produced by life,” says David Charbonneau, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who was not involved in these studies.
It is difficult to observe the chemical composition of exoplanets, even with powerful telescopes like Hubble. (The next generation of telescopes that can do this kind of work is still a few years away.) Hubble observes the light coming from distant stars, not the planets around them. To find the planets, astronomers must dig into the starlight that has passed through the planet’s atmosphere on its way to Earth. “Some of the stellar light filters through the exoplanet’s atmosphere, and when it does that, some of that light will be absorbed by the chemistry that is in that atmosphere,” says Ingo Waldmann, an astronomer at the University College London and one of the authors of the Nature Astronomy study. “If we manage to get these photons that went through the atmosphere of that planet, then we can characterize the chemistry of the atmosphere of that planet.”