NASA says James Webb telescope has found planet with potential surface oceans and possible key sign of life
· Sep 23, 2023 ·

Don't ever let anyone tell you that big beautiful space telescope is just for taking pretty pictures:

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. 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.

All of that sounds pretty heady and technical. The main point is this:

  • A "water ocean-covered surface" would be a huge deal. We've found so-called "oceans" on planets before, but they're not exactly the most hospitable places: The one on Jupiter's moon Europa, for instance, is buried under impenetrable ice, while the surface liquid on the Saturnian moon of Titan is actually methane. Yikes. So water on a planet's surface would be a very big deal indeed: It means the planet is cool enough so that water doesn't boil away and warm enough so that it doesn't freeze. It's just right, in other words.

  • The presence of "carbon-bearing molecules" is compelling, but even more so is the possible appearance of a molecule known as dimethyl sulfide. As NASA notes, "On Earth, this is only produced by life," with "the bulk of the DMS in Earth's atmosphere … emitted from phytoplankton in marine environments." Further research is needed to determine if DMS is truly present, but if it is, that could be a major sign of real, actual life on the planet.

The scientists are hoping for "the identification of life on a habitable exoplanet," which, they correctly note, would "transform our understanding of our place in the universe."

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