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Newly Discovered Giant Planet Shows Signs of Life-Sustaining Atmosphere

he vastness of space with the silhouette of the James Webb Telescope in the foreground, pointing towards distant stars and galaxies, highlighting its role in discovering molecules associated with life.

The James Webb Telescope, operated by NASA, has identified what appears to be a molecule in space that, on Earth, is exclusively generated by living organisms.

Giant Exoplanet with Life-Producing Gas

NASA has discovered an exoplanet that is 8.6 times the size of Earth, containing a gas typically generated by living processes. This significant find was made using the James Webb Space Telescope, which embarked on its journey aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America, on December 25, 2021. Last year, this groundbreaking observation was made, marking an exhilarating development in space exploration.

The Exoplanet

Designated as K2-18 b, also known by its alternate name EPIC 201912552 b, this exoplanet circles the red dwarf star K2-18 within what NASA describes as the ‘habitable zone.’

Situated 124 light years from Earth, the planet boasts a radius approximately 2.6 times that of Earth and carries a mass 8.6 times greater than our home planet.

Originally discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, the planet’s atmosphere received a more in-depth analysis during the mission of the Webb Telescope.

The Discoveries

In a groundbreaking revelation last year, NASA announced that the exoplanet K2-18b exhibits “the presence of carbon-bearing molecules including methane and carbon dioxide.”

This information enhances previous research indicating that K2-18b might be classified as a ‘Hycean exoplanet’—a type characterized by a potential hydrogen-rich atmosphere enveloping a surface covered in ocean water.

Moreover, initial observations by the Webb Telescope also hinted at the existence of a molecule known as dimethyl sulfide (DMS) within the planet’s atmosphere—a compound on Earth produced solely by biological activity.

But, does this indicate life on K2-18b?

Possibilities of Life

NASA elucidates that the observed mix of methane and carbon dioxide, coupled with the absence of ammonia, could suggest the presence of an ocean beneath a hydrogen-rich atmosphere on K2-18b.

Remarkably, the Webb Telescope’s preliminary findings include the detection of dimethyl sulfide (DMS), a molecule on Earth generated exclusively by living organisms, notably by phytoplankton in oceans.

Despite these exciting findings, NASA has raised considerations regarding the planet’s habitability due to its considerable size, suggesting that K2-18b’s interior may host a thick mantle of high-pressure ice, or its ocean might be excessively hot for life or even liquid state to endure.

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