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Scientists discover 'best evidence yet' for 'water worlds'

Anish Vij

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Scientists discover 'best evidence yet' for 'water worlds'

Featured Image Credit: NASA Goddard/YouTube/NASA/ESA/Leah Hustak (STScI)

NASA's Hubble and Spitzer telescopes have found evidence that suggests two exoplanets orbiting a red dwarf star are 'water worlds'.

In case you're wondering, water worlds are where water makes up a large fraction of an entire planet - *pretends to be shocked*.

Perfect place to build a waterpark? Perhaps not.

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A diagram of Kepler-138d. Credit: Benoit Gougeon (University of Montreal)
A diagram of Kepler-138d. Credit: Benoit Gougeon (University of Montreal)

These worlds are located 218 light-years away in the constellation Lyra and are unlike any planets found in our solar system.

The team led by of researchers at the University of Montreal published a detailed study of this planetary system, known as Kepler-138, in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Team leader Caroline Piaulet oversaw the whole project, which focused on observing exoplanets Kepler-138c and Kepler-138d with the help of NASA's telescopes.

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Although the telescopes can’t directly observe the planets’ surfaces, analysis showed their densities were lighter than rock worlds but heavier than gas-dominated ones.

 Illustration of super-Earth Kepler-138 d is in the foreground. To the left, the planet Kepler-138 c, and in the background the planet Kepler 138 b. Credit: NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI)
Illustration of super-Earth Kepler-138 d is in the foreground. To the left, the planet Kepler-138 c, and in the background the planet Kepler 138 b. Credit: NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI)

“Imagine larger versions of Europa or Enceladus, the water-rich moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, but brought much closer to their star,” explained Piaulet.

“Instead of an icy surface, they would harbor large water-vapor envelopes.”

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Before you get your swimming trunks on, the two possible water worlds, Kepler-138c and d, are not located in the habitable zone, which is the area around a star where temperatures would allow liquid water on the surface of a rocky planet.

However, researchers actually found evidence for a new planet in the system, Kepler-138e, which happens to be in the habitable zone.

Data from the Hubble telescope was used for the research. Credit: Dennis Hallinan / Alamy Stock Photo
Data from the Hubble telescope was used for the research. Credit: Dennis Hallinan / Alamy Stock Photo

“We previously thought that planets that were a bit larger than Earth were big balls of metal and rock, like scaled-up versions of Earth and that’s why we called them super-Earths,” explained Björn Benneke, study co-author and professor of astrophysics at the University of Montreal.

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“However, we have now shown that these two planets, Kepler-138c and d, are quite different in nature and that a big fraction of their entire volume is likely composed of water.

“It is the best evidence yet for water worlds, a type of planet that was theorized by astronomers to exist for a long time.”

Researchers also discovered that Kepler-138c and d are 'twin' planets, with virtually the same size and mass.

The planets were previously thought to be very different.

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“As our instruments and techniques become sensitive enough to find and study planets that are farther from their stars, we might start finding a lot more of these water worlds,” Benneke concluded.

Topics: News, NASA, Science, Space

Anish Vij
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