In a groundbreaking revelation, scientists have unveiled a stunning discovery of a rare water ocean on a massive exoplanet located countless light years away from Earth. The findings, made possible through NASA’s state-of-the-art James Webb Space Telescope, have illuminated the extraordinary characteristics of K2-18 b, an exoplanet nearly 8.6 times the mass of Earth.
What sets K2-18 b apart is not just its colossal size but also the presence of carbon-bearing molecules, including methane and carbon dioxide, as revealed by Webb’s meticulous investigation. These newfound details have intensified the belief that K2-18 b could belong to a special class of exoplanets known as Hycean planets, characterized by the potential for a hydrogen-rich atmosphere and a surface concealed beneath vast oceans.
K2-18 b occupies a coveted spot within the habitable zone of a cool dwarf star named K2-18, nestled approximately 120 light years away from Earth within the Leo constellation. These exoplanets, falling in size between Earth and Neptune, have captured the curiosity of scientists worldwide due to their distinctiveness and non-membership in our solar system.
“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 sulphide (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,” revealed NASA in a press release.
Nikku Madhusudhan, an esteemed astronomer at the University of Cambridge and the lead author of the study, emphasized the importance of this discovery. “Our findings underscore the importance of considering diverse habitable environments in the search for life elsewhere. 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,” Madhusudhan stated.
K2-18 b first came into scientific view in 2015, as part of NASA’s K2 mission. However, thanks to the technological marvel that is the James Webb Space Telescope, scientists have been given the unprecedented opportunity to delve deeper into the enigmatic world of K2-18 b. Orbiting a star outside our solar system, this colossal exoplanet has opened up new frontiers in our quest to understand the intricacies of the cosmos.