Signs of life on exoplanet?


A new investigation with Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope into K2-18 b, an exoplanet 8.6 times as massive as Earth, has revealed the presence of carbon-bearing molecules, including methane and carbon dioxide.

According to Nasa, Webb’s discovery adds to recent studies suggesting that K2-18 b could be a Hycean exoplanet, one which has the potential to possess a hydrogen-rich atmosphere and a water ocean-covered surface.

“Our findings underscore the importance of considering diverse habitable environments in the search for life elsewhere,” explained Nikku Madhusudhan, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the paper announcing these results. “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.”

The first insight into the atmospheric properties of this habitable-zone exoplanet came from observations with Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope, which prompted further studies that have since changed the understanding of the system.

K2-18 b orbits the cool dwarf star K2-18 in the habitable zone and lies 120 light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo. Exoplanets such as K2-18 b, which have sizes between Earth and Neptune, are unlike anything in the solar system. This lack of equivalent nearby planets means that these ‘sub-Neptunes’ are poorly understood, and the nature of their atmospheres is a matter of active debate among astronomers.

The suggestion that the sub-Neptune K2-18 b could be a Hycean exoplanet is intriguing, as some astronomers believe that these worlds are promising environments to search for evidence of life on exoplanets.

The abundance of methane and carbon dioxide and shortage of ammonia support the hypothesis that there may be a water ocean underneath a hydrogen-rich atmosphere in K2-18 b. These initial Webb observations also provided a possible detection of a molecule called dimethyl sulfide (DMS). On Earth, this is only produced by life. The bulk of the DMS in Earth’s atmosphere is emitted from phytoplankton in marine environments.

The inference of DMS is less robust and requires further validation. “Upcoming Webb observations should be able to confirm if DMS is indeed present in the atmosphere of K2-18 b at significant levels,” explained Madhusudhan.

While K2-18 b lies in the habitable zone, and is now known to harbor carbon-bearing molecules, this does not necessarily mean that the planet can support life. The planet’s large size — with a radius 2.6 times the radius of Earth — means that the planet’s interior likely contains a large mantle of high-pressure ice, like Neptune, but with a thinner hydrogen-rich atmosphere and an ocean surface. Hycean worlds are predicted to have oceans of water. However, it is also possible that the ocean is too hot to be habitable or be liquid.

“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,” explained team member 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.”

“This result was only possible because of the extended wavelength range and unprecedented sensitivity of Webb, which enabled robust detection of spectral features with just two transits,” said Madhusudhan. “For comparison, one transit observation with Webb provided comparable precision to eight observations with Hubble conducted over a few years and in a relatively narrow wavelength range.”

“These results are the product of just two observations of K2-18 b, with many more on the way,” explained team member Savvas Constantinou of the University of Cambridge. “This means our work here is but an early demonstration of what Webb can observe in habitable-zone exoplanets.”

“Our ultimate goal is the identification of life on a habitable exoplanet, which would transform our understanding of our place in the universe,” concluded Madhusudhan. “Our findings are a promising step towards a deeper understanding of Hycean worlds in this quest.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving mysteries in the solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of the universe. Webb is an international programme led by Nasa with its partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

How is the Webb Telescope different from Hubble?

Nasa calls the Webb Telescope a successor to Hubble as their capabilities are not identical. Webb will primarily look at the universe in the infrared, while Hubble studies it primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths (though it has some infrared capability).

Webb also has a much bigger mirror than Hubble. It has an approximately 6.5 metre diameter primary mirror, which gives it a significantly larger collecting area than the mirrors available on the current generation of space telescopes. Hubble’s mirror is a much smaller 2.4 metres in diameter and its corresponding collecting area is 4.5 m2, giving Webb around 6.25 times more collecting area!

Webb will have significantly larger field of view than the NICMOS camera on Hubble (covering more than ~15 times the area) and significantly better spatial resolution than is available with the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope.

This larger light collecting area means that Webb can peer farther back into time than Hubble is capable of doing.

The Hubble Space Telescope orbits around Earth at an altitude of 570km above it. Webb will not actually orbit Earth — instead it will sit at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point, 1.5 million km away!

Because Hubble is in Earth orbit, it was able to be launched into space by the space shuttle. Webb was launched on an Ariane 5 rocket and because it won’t be in Earth orbit, it is not designed to be serviced by the space shuttle.