March 25, 2018

Potentially Habitable Exoplanet K2-18b Found To Have Super-Earth Neighbor

07 December 2017, 07:18 | Kevin Scott

Scientists Discover Super Earth With Icy Rocks 111 Light Years Away

U of T researcher finds Earth-like conditions in little-known exoplanet – and discovers a new planet

As fascinating as this discovery that hints at the possibility of intelligent life beyond our blue ball may sound, the researchers also managed to locate another planet that neighbours the K2-18b, called K2-18c. The planet is also a super-Earth, but likely orbits too close to its parent star to have liquid water on its surface.

"(The James Webb Space Telescope) is going to vastly expand that parameter space, expand the number of planets that we can actually make these measurements for, and then I'll be able to tell you something interesting about those exoplanet atmospheres".

"Being able to measure the mass and density of K2-18b was tremendous, but to discover a new exoplanet was lucky and equally exciting", said Ryan Cloutier, a PhD student at the University of Toronto and the Université de Montréal Institute for Research on Exoplanets.

The astronomers found that K2-18b has a mass about 8 times that of Earth.

In order to figure out whether the planet was a scaled-up version of Earth (mostly rock), or a scaled-down version of Neptune (mostly gas), Cloutier and co-authors had to first figure out the planet's mass. The planet orbits within its star's habitable zone, which means it could hold liquid water on its surface - a key factor needed to sustain alien life.

Researchers have just discovered a new planet 111 light years away - and in the process they realized a previously discovered planet nearby might be what's known as a "Super Earth".

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The dataset used by Cloutier, the lead author, and other researchers came from the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) using the ESO's 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory, in Chile. They measured radial velocities of stars, which can reveal the existence of planets located around the measured stars.

The planet, named K2-18b, has been dubbed a rocky "super earth" that orbits a Sun-like star. "You have to ensure the signal isn't just noise, and you need to do a careful analysis to verify it, but seeing that initial signal was a good indication there was another planet", Cloutier said.

The next step, according to Cloutier, will be to probe the atmosphere for the presence of water with the help of the James Webb Space Telescope, the NASA/ESA/CSA telescope expected to be completed and launched in two years' time.

Current technology prevents us from being able to definitively say which one it is but the fact that it could be either is a huge leap forward in our understanding of this distant solar system.

The second planet popped up when Cloutier noticed a different signal in the data than from K2-18b, which orbits its star every 33 days. However, K2-18c doesn't really have a favourable atmosphere for life to thrive in it, as it's much closer to its star, being too hot to be habitable.

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