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

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

Orbiting the red-dwarf star of K2-18, both of the planets sit 111 light years away from Earth, within the Leo constellation.

The team, led by Ryan Cloutier, a PhD student at the University of Toronto's department of astronomy and astrophysics, analysed the data collected from the European Southern Observatory (ESO). While figuring that out, they also chanced upon the discovery that another exoplanet also orbits the same star.

The exoplanet known as K2-18b has been described as a potential "Super-Earth". This solid planet which could be a scaled up version of Earth revolves around its star in the comfortable zone that indicates that it may be covered in liquid water and can be a planet with alien life. This meant finding out if K2-18b was a hunk of rock, like Earth, or a dense body of gas, like Jupiter.

If that weren't exciting enough the team then realised that their newly discovered super-Earth wasn't alone and in fact had a neighbour. The Planet K2-18b, as they have already called it, wanders around a star-dwarf and even within the zone where life can develop. "And from how far away it is from the star, it gives you an idea of how hot the surface of this planet might be", Cloutier told CTV News Channel on Tuesday.

Researchers at the Centre for Planetary Sciences have found that K2-18b could very well be a scaled-up version of Earth. By measuring the radial velocities of stars, which can be influenced by the presence of planets around those stars, HARPS can allow for the detection of the planets around the stars.

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"When we first threw the data on the table we were trying to figure out what it was". "Once all the boxes were checked it sunk in that, wow, this actually is a planet". They measured radial velocities of stars, which can reveal the existence of planets located around the measured stars.

Current technology prevents us from being able to definitively say which one it is but the fact that it could be either is a huge leap forward in our understanding of this distant solar system.

The team is now hoping that when NASA's James Webb telescope is launched in 2019, the exoplanets can be studied in much greater detail. "You have to ensure the signal isn't just noise, and you need to do a careful analysis to verify it, but seeing that initial signal was a good indication there was another planet", Cloutier said.

"There's a lot of demand to use this telescope, so you have to be meticulous in choosing which exoplanets to look at", said study co-author René Doyon. It turns out that K2-18b is either a rocky planet with a gaseous atmosphere (just like Earth's) or a vast ocean planet with a thick layer of ice on top of it.

Cloutier collaborated with an global team of researchers, including his supervisor U of T Scarborough Associate Professor Kristen Menou, and from the Observatoire Astronomique de l'Université de Genève, the Institute for research on exoplanets (iREx), Université de Grenoble and Universidade do Porto.

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