According to a NASA announcement, the James Webb Space Telescope has unveiled evidence of a distant planet, situated 120 light years away, which might have the conditions necessary for water and life.
The telescope has identified carbon-containing molecules on K2-18 b through its advanced tools, notably methane and carbon dioxide. This extraterrestrial planet, 8.6 times Earth’s size, circles within the livable zone of its parent cool dwarf star, K2-18.
Recent research hints that K2-18 b might be classified as a Hycean planet, indicating a potential for a hydrogen-dense atmosphere alongside a water-saturated surface, as NASA elaborated.
Hycean planets, many astronomers contend, are ripe locales to explore for life traces.
Highlighting the discovery’s significance, Nikku Madhusudhan, a University of Cambridge astronomer and the study’s principal author, expressed, “While traditionally, we’ve sought life on similar-sized rocky planets, it’s evident that the expansive Hycean planets present a more favorable backdrop for atmospheric studies.”
In 2019, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shed the initial light on K2-18’s atmospheric characteristics. Subsequent research reshaped specialists’ perspectives of the celestial body.
These planets, whose sizes fall between Earth and Neptune, are unique to our solar knowledge and thus remain “enigmatic,” as NASA highlighted. Discussions on the atmospheric nature of these bodies are prevalent among space experts.
The noticeable levels of methane and carbon dioxide, combined with a lack of ammonia, hint at a potential underwater ocean beneath K2-18’s hydrogen-dominant atmosphere.
The telescope might have also spotted a molecule named dimethyl sulfide (DMS), which, on Earth, is a life-linked compound. NASA has noted that our planet’s DMS mainly arises from marine-based phytoplankton.
Madhusudhan anticipates that the subsequent Webb explorations will verify the presence of significant DMS levels in K2-18’s atmosphere.
The scientific community is gearing up for additional studies using Webb’s MIRI spectrograph to affirm their discoveries and procure fresh details about K2-18’s surrounding environment.
Concluding, Madhusudhan shared, “Our endgame is to pinpoint life on a habitable extraterrestrial planet, altering our cosmic perception. These revelations steer us closer to grasping Hycean planets in this mission.”