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Astronomy Space

Daily Dose of Astronomy

JAMES WEBB SPOTS POSSIBLE SIGNS OF LIFE ON DISTANT PLANET

Explore the enigmatic K2-18 b, an ocean-covered exoplanet 120 light-years away, potentially harboring life. Discovered by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, this Hycean planet with a hydrogen-rich atmosphere and evidence of life-indicating molecules like dimethyl sulfide, poses profound questions about extraterrestrial life and our place in the cosmos. Join the journey into the depths of space and the quest for understanding life beyond Earth.

In the vast cosmos, the James Webb Space Telescope has made a groundbreaking discovery, unveiling secrets from a distant world, K2-18 b. This enigmatic exoplanet, nestled in the constellation of Leo, lies 120 light-years away from Earth and presents a tantalizing possibility – a vast, life-sustaining ocean.

The intrigue of K2-18 b lies in its unique composition. NASA’s cutting-edge telescope detected the presence of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) on this distant planet. On Earth, this molecule is a signature of life, adding to the mystery of K2-18 b. Additionally, the atmosphere of this intriguing world contains methane and carbon dioxide, suggesting a “Hycean” nature – an ocean-covered planet with a hydrogen-rich atmosphere.

This artist’s concept shows what exoplanet K2-18 b could look like based on science data. K2-18 b, an exoplanet 8.6 times as massive as Earth, orbits the cool dwarf star K2-18 in the habitable zone and lies 120 light-years from Earth. A new investigation with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope into K2-18 b has revealed the presence of carbon-bearing molecules including methane and carbon dioxide. 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.
Illustration: NASA, CSA, ESA, J. Olmsted (STScI), Science: N. Madhusudhan (Cambridge University)

Orbiting within the habitable zone of its cool dwarf star, K2-18 b receives just enough stellar radiation to potentially allow liquid water on its surface. Discovered in 2015 by NASA’s K2 mission, it was only through the sophisticated observations of the James Webb Space Telescope that the presence of these life-indicating molecules was revealed.

The size of K2-18 b places it in a unique category known as “sub-Neptunes,” larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. These types of exoplanets are the most common in our galaxy, yet they are unlike any planet in our solar system. This makes K2-18 b a subject of intense scientific curiosity and speculation.

As Subhajit Sarkar of Cardiff University, a co-author of the discovery paper, explains, “We have obtained the most detailed spectrum of a habitable-zone sub-Neptune to date.” This breakthrough has opened a window into understanding the molecules present in its atmosphere.

However, the question of life on K2-18 b remains unanswered. The researchers stress the need for more data to validate any claims of life. Nikku Madhusudhan, the team leader from the University of Cambridge, expresses the gravity of this discovery, acknowledging the importance of accuracy in such a monumental claim.

More insights are anticipated from the JWST’s MIRI spectrograph, which will deepen our understanding of this Hycean world. As Madhusudhan puts it, “Our ultimate goal is the identification of life on a habitable exoplanet, which would transform our understanding of our place in the universe.”

This discovery is not just about finding a distant planet; it’s about unravelling the mysteries of life in the cosmos. K2-18 b, with its oceanic depths and potential for life, stands at the forefront of this cosmic quest.