March 20, 2018

Scientists Say Newly-Discovered 'Super Earth' Could Be Hosting Alien Life

08 December 2017, 01:26 | Camille Rivera

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

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

They orbit a red dwarf star 111 lightyears away - or 625,000,000,000,000,000 miles away - in the Leo constellation. The exoplanet sits in a potentially habitable zone from its parent star, which makes it an ideal candidate to hold liquid water on its surface - a crucial element which is required to harbour any form of life.

For this reason, they concluded the exoplanet could be a "scaled-up version of Earth". And in February, yet another science team announced the planet TRAPPIST-1 hosts seven rocky planets, including some that may be in the habitable zone.

However, not much was known about the exoplanet earlier, particularly about its composition, which is the reason researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Montreal chose to find out whether K2-18b is a rocky scaled-up version of Earth or a gassy object like Neptune.

The study conducted by the University of Toronto and the University of Montreal, Canada was in collaboration with a dataset coming from the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) which used the European Southern Observatory's 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile.

The study also found that K2-18b even has a neighbour, K2-18c.

To determine whether K2-18b was a scaled-down version of Neptune, composed largely of gas, or a scaled-up version of Earth, made up mostly of rock, researchers first had to find out the mass of the planet, making use of the radial velocity measurements data gathered by HARPS.

"If you can get the mass and radius, you can measure the bulk density of the planet and that can tell you what the bulk of the planet is made of", said Cloutier.

K2-18c - the newly discovered planet - has roughly the same size and mass.

"When we first threw the data on the table we were trying to figure out what it was", Cloutier said. In 2019, the powerful James Webb Space Telescope will allow researchers to peer deeper into outer space.

Located 111 million light years away, the planet known as K2-18b has been described as a potential "Super-Earth" - a large rocky planet capable of supporting life.

"There's a lot of demand to use this telescope, so you have to be meticulous in choosing which exoplanets to look at", says René Doyon, a co-author on the paper who is with Université de Montréal Institute and a principal investigator for NIRISS, which is the Canadian Space Agency instrument on board the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Canadian-made Near-InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectograph (NIRISS) is specifically created to probe the atmospheres of exoplanets, and Doyon said that K2-18 is at the top of the list.

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