A recent study of an exoplanet 120 light-years away revealed it has elements that are believed to be essential in the formation of life.
NASA studied K2-18 b, an exoplanet 8.6 times as massive as Earth, using the one-year-old Webb Space Telescope. The telescope discovered the exoplanet likely has a hydrogen-rich atmosphere, which would allow it to have a water-covered surface.
NASA also said that the exoplanet possesses carbon-bearing molecules such as methane and carbon dioxide. The exoplanet sits in the habitable zone of its parent star, where temperatures are considered not too hot or too cold to harbor life.
But not much is known about exoplanets like K2-18 b. NASA noted that the planet is much larger than Earth, but smaller than Neptune. NASA hopes to continue studying exoplanets like K2-18 b to gain a better understanding of these sub-Neptune planets.
"Our findings underscore the importance of considering diverse habitable environments in the search for life elsewhere," said Nikku Madhusudhan, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge. "Traditionally, the search for life on exoplanets has focused primarily on smaller rocky planets, but the larger Hycean worlds are significantly more conducive to atmospheric observations."
Scientists say the discoveries support the hypothesis that the exoplanet has abundant liquid water.
Researchers said, however, it is possible that the water might be too hot to remain a liquid. Given the distance, there is a lot that remains unknown.
"Although this kind of planet does not exist in our solar system, sub-Neptunes are the most common type of planet known so far in the galaxy," said Subhajit Sarkar of Cardiff University. “We have obtained the most detailed spectrum of a habitable-zone sub-Neptune to date, and this allowed us to work out the molecules that exist in its atmosphere.”
The telescope has allowed scientists to examine galaxies up to 13.1 billion light-years away. The telescope's spectrograph permits NASA to explore objects' chemical composition.
The Webb telescope has largely replaced the Hubble telescope as NASA’s primary view of deep space.
Leading scientists say discoveries like the ones being made by the Webb Telescope will help better answer the question: Are we alone in the universe?
“It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when’ we find life on other planets,” Ravi Kopparapu, a researcher with the Goddard Space Flight Center, said. “I’m sure in my lifetime, in our lifetime, we will know if there is life on other worlds.”
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