Surprise! Water Is Common on Exoplanets, According to This New Cambridge University Astronomical Study

Wednesday, 11 December 2019 - 9:15AM
Astronomy
Wednesday, 11 December 2019 - 9:15AM
Surprise! Water Is Common on Exoplanets, According to This New Cambridge University Astronomical Study
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IAU/L. Calçada CC BY 4.0
Scientists working together at the University of Cambridge have released the results from what is the largest-scale study of exoplanets to date, according to reports from Phys.Org. By collecting atmospheric measurements and then analyzing and aggregating the data, they were able to paint a detailed picture of these exoplanets' atmospheric chemical compositions and temperatures.


"We are seeing the first signs of chemical patterns in extra-terrestrial worlds, and we're seeing just how diverse they can be in terms of their chemical compositions," explained Dr. Nikku Madhusudhan, the study's project leader at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge in an official statement.


Nineteen very different planets were involved in the study, including "super-Jupiters" the size of 600 Earths and "mini-Neptunes" only 10 times the size of our planet. The team collected and analyzed spectroscopic data from the most advanced telescopes in the world, including Hubble and Spitzer. Spectroscopy is a way of determining chemical composition by analyzing the colors of visible light that it emits (and absorbs) when exposed to radiation and using those colors to determine which chemicals are present.


As it turns out, water is surprisingly common on exoplanets – but not abundant. Fourteen planets out of the nineteen that were studied showed signs of water vapor in their atmospheres. "It is incredible to see such low water abundances in the atmospheres of a broad range of planets orbiting a variety of stars," Madhusudhan pointed out.


This is the result of a five-year examination of exoplanetary atmospheres; a paper has been published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.


"Given that water is a key ingredient to our notion of habitability on Earth, it is important to know how much water can be found in planetary systems beyond our own," Madhusudhan concluded.


Cover Image: International Astronomical Union CC BY 4.0
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