Another Explanation for K2-18b? A Gas-Rich Mini-Neptune with No Habitable Surface

Artist depiction of the mini-Neptune K2-18 b. Credit: NASA, CSA, ESA, J. Olmstead (STScI), N. Madhusudhan (Cambridge University)

Exoplanet K2-18b is garnering a lot of attention. James Webb Space Telescope spectroscopy shows it has carbon and methane in its atmosphere. Those results, along with other observations, suggest the planet could be a long-hypothesized ‘Hycean World.’ But new research counters that.

Instead, the planet could be a gaseous mini-Neptune.

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NASA Confirms that 2023 was the Hottest Year on Record

This map of Earth in 2023 shows global surface temperature anomalies, or how much warmer or cooler each region of the planet was compared to the average from 1951 to 1980. Normal temperatures are shown in white, higher-than-normal temperatures in red and orange, and lower-than-normal temperatures in blue. Image Credit: NASA SVS

After analyzing the temperature data from 2023, NASA has concluded that it was the hottest year on record. This will surprise almost nobody. If you live in one of the regions stricken by drought, forest fires, or unusually powerful weather, you don’t need NASA to confirm that the planet is warming.

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Is K2-18b Covered in Oceans of Water or Oceans of Lava?

This illustration shows what exoplanet K2-18 b could look like based on science data. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope examined the exoplanet and revealed the presence of carbon-bearing molecules. The abundance of methane and carbon dioxide, and shortage of ammonia, support the hypothesis that there may be a water ocean underneath a hydrogen-rich atmosphere in K2-18 b. Image Credit: By Illustration: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)Science: Nikku Madhusudhan (IoA)

In the search for potentially life-supporting exoplanets, liquid water is the key indicator. Life on Earth requires liquid water, and scientists strongly believe the same is true elsewhere. But from a great distance, it’s difficult to tell what worlds have oceans of water. Some of them can have lava oceans instead, and getting the two confused is a barrier to understanding exoplanets, water, and habitability more clearly.

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A Hot Jupiter With a Comet-Like Tail

The hot jupiter exoplanet WASP-69b orbits its star so closely that its atmosphere is being blown into space. Researchers made detailed observations of the planet, located about 160 light-years from Earth. They found that it has a comet-like tail extending about 560,000 km into space, about seven times the planet's diameter. Image Credit: Adam Makarenko/W. M. Keck Observatory

About 164 light-years away, a Hot Jupiter orbits its star so closely that it takes fewer than four days to complete an orbit. The planet is named WASP-69b, and it’s losing mass into space, stripped away by the star’s powerful energy. The planet’s lost atmosphere forms a trail that extends about 560,000 km (350,000 miles) into space.

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Half of this Exoplanet is Covered in Lava

Like Kepler-10 b, illustrated above, the exoplanet HD 63433 d is a small, rocky planet in a tight orbit of its star. HD 63433 d is the smallest confirmed exoplanet younger than 500 million years old. It's also the closest discovered Earth-sized planet this young, at about 400 million years old. NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Astronomers working with TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) have discovered a planet that’s been left out in the Sun too long. Or at least half of it has. The newly discovered planet is tidally locked to its star, and one side is completely molten.

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GJ 367b is Another Dead World Orbiting a Red Dwarf

This artist's concept illustrates a young, red dwarf star surrounded by three planets. There's growing evidence that red dwarfs place serious limits on exoplanet habitability. Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech - NASA Image of the Day, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17104843

Red dwarf exoplanet habitability is a hot topic in space science. These small dim stars host lots of exoplanets, including small rocky ones the size of Earth. But the little stars emit extremely powerful flares that can damage and strip away atmospheres.

If we’re ever going to understand red dwarf habitability, we need to understand the atmospheres of the exoplanets that orbit them.

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Millions of Satellites Could Have a Profound Effect on the Earth’s Ionosphere

Mega-constellations of satellites. Credit: ESA-Science Office

Hardly a day goes by where a story hits the headlines about our abuse of the Earth’s precious environment be that the atmosphere or the oceans, forests or desert. When it comes to the atmosphere we all tend to immediately turn our attention to pollution, to gasses being released and disturbing the delicate balance. Yet a paper recently published points to a new demon, megaconstellations of satellites damaging the ionosphere – the ionised part of the upper atmosphere.

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ESA’s Ariel Mission is Approved to Begin Construction

An artist's impression of the ESA's Ariel space telescope. It'll examine 1,000 exoplanet atmospheres. Image Credit: ESA

We’re about to learn a lot more about exoplanets. The ESA has just approved the construction of its Ariel mission, which will give us our first large survey of exoplanet atmospheres. The space telescope will help us answer fundamental questions about how planets form and evolve.

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Wow. JWST Just Found Methane in an Exoplanet Atmosphere

This artist’s rendering shows the warm exoplanet WASP-80 b. When viewed with human eyes, the colour may appear bluish due to the lack of high-altitude clouds and the presence of atmospheric methane identified by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. That makes it similar to the planets Uranus and Neptune in our own solar system. Image credit: NASA.

If there’s one chemical that causes excitement in the search for biosignatures on other worlds, it’s methane. It’s not a slam dunk because it has both biotic and abiotic sources. But finding it in an exoplanet’s atmosphere means that planet deserves a closer look.

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Take a Plunge Into the Ice Giants

The unique atmospheric compositions of ‘ice giant’ planets Uranus and Neptune were recreated to simulate a plunge deep within them. These simulations are part of preparation for eventual atmospheric probes the ESA intends to send. Image Credit: University of Stuttgart’s High Enthalpy Flow Diagnostics Group

Our Solar System’s ice giants, Uranus and Neptune, have been largely left out of the planetary probe game. While all of the other planets—including even the demoted Pluto—have been the subjects of dedicated missions, the ice giants have not. In fact, the only spacecraft to ever even fly by Uranus and Neptune was Voyager 2 in the late 1980s.

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