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HomeScienceJWST data suggests exoplanet K2-18b may have a molten surface rather than...

JWST data suggests exoplanet K2-18b may have a molten surface rather than a watery ocean


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The fraction of nitrogen in the planet’s atmosphere compared to the planet’s total inventory, as a function of magma ocean oxygen fugacity. As oxygen fugacity decreases, the increased solubility of nitrogen depletes the atmosphere by orders of magnitude. Credit: The letters from the astrophysical diary (2024). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ad206e

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The fraction of nitrogen in the planet’s atmosphere compared to the planet’s total inventory, as a function of magma ocean oxygen fugacity. As oxygen fugacity decreases, the increased solubility of nitrogen depletes the atmosphere by orders of magnitude. Credit: The letters from the astrophysical diary (2024). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ad206e

A multi-institutional team of astronomers, Earth scientists, and planetary physicists has found evidence, through data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), that some hycean exoplanets may have molten surfaces rather than watery oceans. in its studypublished in The letters from the astrophysical diary, The team analyzed data from JWST while focusing on the Hycean exoplanet K2-18b.

Previous research has suggested that there are certain exoplanets that have attributes that classify them as archetypically Hycean. These exoplanets are typically between Neptune and Earth in size and have an atmosphere that suggests the presence of surface water. These planets are often the target of researchers searching for life beyond Earth.

For this new study, the team focused its efforts on one particular Hycean exoplanet called K2-18b. It has received attention before as a possible host for extraterrestrial life, but this is the first time it has been studied using JWST data.

The research team examined models of the planet built by previous teams, some of which found evidence that the planet might be too hot to host an ocean: the water would have evaporated. The JWST data revealed evidence consistent with such assessments; The researchers then conducted an analysis of the planet’s atmosphere. They looked at it in two ways: as if the planet housed an ocean and; as if the planet had a molten surface instead. They found that either scenario matched the JWST data. But because the planet is so hot, the latter scenario is likely correct.


Transmission spectra between 4.0 and 5.2 μm for four models demonstrating a range of CO2: CO ratios of the magma ocean scenario. Observation data for the observed transmission spectrum of K2-18b are shown with associated errors. Credit: The letters from the astrophysical diary (2024). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ad206e

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Transmission spectra between 4.0 and 5.2 μm for four models demonstrating a range of CO2: CO ratios of the magma ocean scenario. Observation data for the observed transmission spectrum of K2-18b are shown with associated errors. Credit: The letters from the astrophysical diary (2024). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ad206e

The research team suggests that efforts involved in searching for life on exoplanets should first test planetary temperatures to ensure that it is not too hot to host an ocean. They further state that JWST data could prove indispensable in the coming years for such studies.

The authors conclude: “Developing clear and disambiguating atmospheric tracers of the presence of liquid water oceans versus magma oceans is key in our quest to find potentially habitable worlds among the exoplanet population.”

More information:
Oliver Shorttle et al, Distinguishing water oceans from magma on Mini-Neptune K2-18b, The letters from the astrophysical diary (2024). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ad206e

Magazine information:
Letters from astrophysical journals




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