Over the years, astronomers have found well over 5,000 exoplanets —or planets beyond our solar system— and scientists suspect there could be over a trillion exoplanets in our Milky Way galaxy alone. Now, scientists have spotted two massive planets where water could compose up to half of these planets’ mass, according to the European Space Agency.
“It is the best evidence yet for water worlds, a type of planet that was theorized by astronomers to exist for a long time,” Björn Benneke, an exoplanet researcher at the University of Montreal who worked on the research, said in a statement, per the publication.
The planets are called Kepler-138 c and Kepler-138 d, named after NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which identified thousands of exoplanets and revolutionized our grasp of what lies beyond our solar system, in the deep cosmos. These two water worlds inhabit a solar system 218 light-years away and are “unlike any planets in our Solar System,” noted the European Space Agency.
The Kepler telescope found these “water worlds”. But astronomers then peered deeper at these worlds with both the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. They found the exoplanets to be over three times the size of Earth and teeming with water.
According to scientists, this is an intriguing discovery. Until now, planets a little larger than Earth appear to be rocky worlds (aka “super-Earths”). Yet Kepler-138 c and Kepler-138 d more resemble the ice-covered moons in our solar system, like Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus — a world that shoots plumes of icy particles into space. Planetary scientists suspect oceans may slosh under these moons’ frozen shells.
But Kepler-138 c and Kepler-138 d are exposed to more heat energy than these ice-clad moons.
“Imagine larger versions of Europa or Enceladus, the water-rich moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, but brought much closer to their star,” Caroline Piaulet, a scientist at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets at the University of Montreal who led the research, said in a statement. “Instead of an icy surface, they would harbor large water-vapor envelopes.” (“Water-vapor envelopes” references an atmosphere with lots of water in the air.) And Kepler-138 d is extremely hot, so its atmosphere could be steamy.)
Importantly, these latest Kepler-138 c and Kepler-138 d observations did not directly identify water on the planets. But simulations of what these worlds are like — based on their mass, size, and other factors — suggest they’re composed of “materials that are lighter than rock but heavier than hydrogen or helium,” the European Space Agency explains. “The most common candidate material is water.”
Next, however, the most powerful space telescope in existence, the James Webb Space Telescope, will peer at these suspected water worlds to detect important elements and molecules in these distant worlds.
Astronomers expect to be surprised by what the JWST finds in these alien worlds.
Two super-Earth exoplanets orbiting a red dwarf star may be “water worlds.” They are 218 light-years away in the constellation Lyra, and are unlike any planet found in our solar system. https://t.co/vz4ahF6ytB pic.twitter.com/NNdv7OyzAT
— NASA Exoplanets (@NASAExoplanets) December 15, 2022