A planet larger than Earth was found and can host extraterrestrial life

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

However, while it also appears to be a super Earth and is closer to both planets' star (red-dwarf K2-18, which is located 111 light years from Earth) - it is likely to be too hot to be in the habitable zone. A recently discovered planet named Super Earth unveiling that it could hold numerous critical components of alien life.

Trying to find out whether the planet is more like a scaled-down version of Neptune made mostly of gas, or a scaled-up version of Earth made mostly of rock, the researchers used radial velocity measurements of its star, and a machine learning calculator.

K2-18b was first spotted by the astronomers in 2015.

"Being able to measure the mass and density of K2-18b was tremendous, but to discover a new exoplanet was lucky and equally exciting", stated lead author Ryan Cloutier, an astronomy and astrophysics Ph.D student at the University of Toronto and the University of Montreal's Institute for Research on Exoplanets.

The researcher, who had set a goal to discover a new exoplanet for his thesis, made the discovery by scouring data collected by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

The study was made possible thanks to data obtained from the ESO's 3.6 m telescope at the La Silla Observatory in a remote region of Chile.

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As for the neighbouring planet K2-18c, the researchers concluded that it was quite close to the sun and therefore uninhabitable due to high temperatures, but like the K2-18b it is also a Super-Earth. The High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) planet-finding spectrograph installed on the telescope measures the radial velocities of stars, which are affected by any nearby planets, with the highest accuracy available, enabling it to detect even the smallest of planets. HARPS measurements provided information on the planet's mass, while the planet's radius was determined by other instruments that measure how much light it blocks from its parent star. By collecting so-called "radial velocity" data on K2-18, the scientists were able to estimate the size of K2-18b.

They found that the planet is probably mostly rocky with a gaseous atmosphere - like Earth, only more significant, however, it may be a predominantly water planet with a thick layer of ice, so further investigation is needed. "But with the James Webb Space Telescope we can probe the atmosphere and see whether it has an extensive atmosphere or it's a planet covered in water".

The second planet popped up when Cloutier noticed a different signal in the data than from K2-18b, which orbits its star every 33 days.

The list of targets for the forthcoming telescope is long, but Cloutier and his colleagues think K2-18b is a deserving candidate.

JWST is NASA's successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and is now scheduled to be launched in spring 2019. They named it K2-18c.

Researcher Professor René Doyon said that there's a lot of demand to use this telescope, so you have to be accurate in picking which exoplanets to look at.

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