Nav: Home

Water-worlds are common: Exoplanets may contain vast amounts of water

August 17, 2018

  • What has been found? That the known masses and sizes of many exoplanets of two to four times the size of Earth can be explained by large amounts of water.

  • Why is it important? Water has been implied previously on individual exoplanets, but this work concludes that water-rich planets are common. This bodes well for planet formation of Earth-like planets with water and the search for life beyond our Solar System.
Scientists have shown that water is likely to be a major component of those exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars) which are between two to four times the size of Earth. It will have implications for the search of life in our Galaxy. The work is presented at the Goldschmidt conference in Boston.

The 1992 discovery of exoplanets orbiting other stars has sparked interest in understanding the composition of these planets to determine, among other goals, whether they are suitable for the development of life. Now a new evaluation of data from the exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope and the Gaia mission indicates that many of the known planets may contain as much as 50% water. This is much more than the Earth's 0.02% (by weight) water content.

"It was a huge surprise to realize that there must be so many water-worlds", said lead researcher Dr Li Zeng (Harvard University),

Scientists have found that many of the 4000 confirmed or candidate exoplanets discovered so far fall into two size categories: those with the planetary radius averaging around 1.5 that of the Earth, and those averaging around 2.5 times the radius of the Earth.

Now a group of International scientists, after analyzing the exoplanets with mass measurements and recent radius measurements from the Gaia satellite, have developed a model of their internal structure.

"We have looked at how mass relates to radius, and developed a model which might explain the relationship", said Li Zeng. The model indicates that those exoplanets which have a radius of around x1.5 Earth radius tend to be rocky planets (of typically x5 the mass of the Earth), while those with a radius of x2.5 Earth radius (with a mass around x10 that of the Earth) are probably water worlds".

"This is water, but not as commonly found here on Earth", said Li Zeng. "Their surface temperature is expected to be in the 200 to 500 degree Celsius range. Their surface may be shrouded in a water-vapor-dominated atmosphere, with a liquid water layer underneath. Moving deeper, one would expect to find this water transforms into high-pressure ices before we reaching the solid rocky core. The beauty of the model is that it explains just how composition relates to the known facts about these planets".

Li Zeng continued, "Our data indicate that about 35% of all known exoplanets which are bigger than Earth should be water-rich. These water worlds likely formed in similar ways to the giant planet cores (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) which we find in our own solar system. The newly-launched TESS mission will find many more of them, with the help of ground-based spectroscopic follow-up. The next generation space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope*, will hopefully characterize the atmosphere of some of them. This is an exciting time for those interested in these remote worlds".

Professor Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and deputy science director of the recently-launched TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) mission, which will search for exoplanets, said:

"It's amazing to think that the enigmatic intermediate-size exoplanets could be water worlds with vast amounts of water. Hopefully atmosphere observations in the future--of thick steam atmospheres---can support or refute the new findings".
-end-
*JWST is the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be the successor to the Hubble space telescope. It is due to be launched in 2021, see https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-44631661 for background.

This press release is based on work presented at the Goldschmidt conference, Boston, Abstract Growth Model Interpretation of Planet Size Distribution, see notes for full abstract.

Goldschmidt Conference

Related Planets Articles:

The rare molecule weighing in on the birth of planets
Astronomers using one of the most advanced radio telescopes have discovered a rare molecule in the dust and gas disc around a young star -- and it may provide an answer to one of the conundrums facing astronomers.
How many Earth-like planets are around sun-like stars?
A new study provides the most accurate estimate of the frequency that planets that are similar to Earth in size and in distance from their host star occur around stars similar to our Sun.
Dead planets can 'broadcast' for up to a billion years
Astronomers are planning to hunt for cores of exoplanets around white dwarf stars by 'tuning in' to the radio waves that they emit.
The sun follows the rhythm of the planets
One of the big questions in solar physics is why the sun's activity follows a regular cycle of 11 years.
Five planets revealed after 20 years of observation
To confirm the presence of a planet, it is necessary to wait until it has made one or more revolutions around its star.
Icy giant planets in the laboratory
Giant planets like Neptune may contain much less free hydrogen than previously assumed.
New NASA mission could find more than 1,000 planets
A NASA telescope that will give humans the largest, deepest, clearest picture of the universe since the Hubble Space Telescope could find as many as 1,400 new planets outside Earth's solar system, new research suggests.
Giant planets around young star raise questions about how planets form
Researchers have identified a young star with four Jupiter and Saturn-sized planets in orbit around it, the first time that so many massive planets have been detected in such a young system.
The stuff that planets are made of
UZH researchers have analyzed the composition and structure of faraway exoplanets using statistical tools.
Largest haul of extrasolar planets for Japan
Forty-four planets in solar systems beyond our own have been unveiled in one go, dwarfing the usual number of confirmations from extrasolar surveys, which is typically a dozen or less.
More Planets News and Planets Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#540 Specialize? Or Generalize?
Ever been called a "jack of all trades, master of none"? The world loves to elevate specialists, people who drill deep into a single topic. Those people are great. But there's a place for generalists too, argues David Epstein. Jacks of all trades are often more successful than specialists. And he's got science to back it up. We talk with Epstein about his latest book, "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.