Space Sunday: exoplanets update

K2-18, a red dwarf star with its two “super-Earth”planets: K2-18c and, foreground, K2-18b, orbiting in the star’s habitable zone. Credit: Alex Boersma

K2-18 is a red dwarf star system located about 111 light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo. It has been of interest to astronomers because it is home to an exoplanet – K2-18b, also referred to as EPIC 201912552 b, discovered in 2015 by the Kepler Space Observatory.

At the time of its discovery, K2-18b was placed within its parent star’s habitable zone, and was believed to be receiving around the same about of radiation as Earth does from the Sun. However, at the time of its discovery, it was unclear if the planet was a rocky super-Earth or a mini-Neptune gas planet. Because of this, an international team of scientists have been studying the planet using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument at the European Southern Observatory.

They had been intending to more accurately characterise K2-18b’s mass, the first step in determining it’s atmospheric properties and bulk composition. And they actually succeeded, determining that K2-18b has a mass of about 8.0 ± 1.9 Earth masses and a bulk density of 3.3 ± 1.2 g/cm³. This is consistent with a terrestrial (aka. rocky) planet with a significant gaseous envelope and a water mass fraction that is equal to or less than 50%. This makes K2-18b is either a super-Earth with a gases atmosphere, or it is a “water world” with a surface layer of thick ice.

However, the team also found something that had not been expected: a second planet orbiting K2-18.

Now referenced as K2-18c, this planet is much closer to its parent star than K2-18b, orbiting its parent once every nine terrestrial days. The team responsible for the discovery believe the planet is 7.5 ± 1.3 Earth masses, making it a “warm super-Earth”. It is far too close to its parent star to be within the habitable zone, making it an unlikely candidate to support life. It was most likely “missed” by Kepler both because of its proximity to the star, and because its orbit does not lie in the same plane.

The discovery of K2-18c was actually made in October 2017. But because it had been missed by Kepler, those detecting it were initially cautious with their findings and sought to further verify them before announcing the find. As the study’s lead, Ryan Cloutier of the University of Toronto said:

When we first threw the data on the table we were trying to figure out what it was. You have to ensure the signal isn’t just noise, and you need to do careful analysis to verify it, but seeing that initial signal was a good indication there was another planet… It wasn’t a eureka moment because we still had to go through a check list of things to do in order to verify the data. Once all the boxes were checked it sunk in that, wow, this actually is a planet.

However, now it has been discovered, it will be the subject of further investigation – as will K2-18b.

In fact, given the findings of the study, K2-18b is now considered as having a reasonable chance that it might have conditions suitable for life. Thus, it is now likely to be a candidate for study by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) when it starts operations in 2019.  JWST will be able to probe the planet’s atmosphere and determine how extensive it is, its composition, and what lies beneath it – be is a planet of an ice-covered ocean or a dry, rocky world – or something between the two.

In addition, the K2-18 system further underlines M-class red dwarf stars as the home of multi-planet systems, while the relatively proximity of K2-18b make it a prime target to further our understanding of the atmospheres around Earth-type exoplanets.

Icy Worlds Might Offer More Chances for Life and Rocky Planets

That K2-18b might be an icy water world fits with the findings of a new study form the  Harvard Smithsonian Centee for Astrophysics, which suggests such planets might be far more prevalent in the galaxy than rocky Earth-type planets.

When we discuss exoplanets, there is a tendency to focus on those within the so-called habitable zone around a star, because this is the most likely region where conditions – based on our own solar system – where life is to arise.

However, as the new study notes, there are actually two other planets within the Sun’s habitable zone where conditions are such that life either never got started or didn’t last that long (Venus) and another where life, if it got started, would have encountered environmental conditions which may have limited it or again, destroyed it. However, there are at least five worlds outside of the Sun’s habitable zone  – Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, Dione and Titan – which all have the potential to support life. Thus, the so-called “habitable zone” around a star need not necessarily be the only place where conditions for life to arise might exist.

Icy worlds with sub-surface oceans may be more common than rocky world in the galaxy – and offer more chances for life to arise. Credit: unknown

Using the solar system as a basis for modelling, the researchers widened their consideration of habitability to include worlds that could have subsurface biospheres. Such environments go beyond icy moons such as Europa and Enceladus and could include many other types deep subterranean environments.

They then went about assessing the likelihood that such bodies are habitable, what advantages and challenges life will have to deal with in these environments, and the likelihood of such worlds existing beyond our Solar System (compared to potentially habitable terrestrial planets).

There are several advantages to “water world” when it comes to harbouring life. They tended to be internally heated (keeping the ocean liquid), may suffer of tectonic activity (as is now thought to be the case with Europa), which could pump living-forming energy and minerals into their oceans, while their icy crusts could offer shielding from harsher UV radiation and cosmic rays (energetic particles). The latter could be a major consideration considering the propensity for re dwarf stars to form planetary systems, and the fact they tend to be quite violently active.

Overall, the researchers determined that a wide range of worlds with ice shells of moderate thickness may exist in a wide range of habitats throughout the cosmos. Based on how statistically likely such worlds are, they concluded that “water worlds” like Europa, Enceladus, and others like them are about 1000 times more common than rocky planets that exist within the habitable zones of their parent stars.

Cross-section of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, showing how hydrothermal vents in the seabed could give rise to hotspots with sufficient heat and mineral release to support life – as well as heat the ocean under the ice and generate the plumes images by the Cassini mission. Credit: NASA/JPL / SwRI

However, while such worlds might be more common, there are negative aspects to the findings. Ice covered ocean worlds would lack sunlight as a source of energy, limiting the available energy supply to localised sources – ocean bottom fumeroles, etc., which in turn limit the size of available biospheres where life might survive – and tectonics could lead to these energy sources shifting or even dying. Also, nutrients needed to support life would likely be available in lower concentrations. That these worlds are ice-covered also makes identify whether the do in fact support life nest to impossible.

Thus, the finding could indicate that basic life might be far more prevalent in the galaxy – but also potentially much harder to detect.



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