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'Water worlds' are more common in the universe than previously thought

‘Water worlds’ are more common in the universe than previously thought — and many of them could be HAVABLE, study reveals

  • Scientists have studied planets orbiting a nearby M dwarf star
  • Previous studies suggested these planets were rocky or gaseous
  • But new analysis suggests many are at least half water and half rock

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It’s the one thing all life on Earth needs, and now a new study suggests many more planets may have large amounts of water than previously thought.

Researchers at the University of Chicago studied a group of planets orbiting an M dwarf star — the most common star shape we see around us in the galaxy.

Their analysis revealed that many more planets than expected were only half water and half rock.

However, they say the water is probably embedded in the rock, rather than flowing as oceans or rivers on the surface, as it does here on Earth.

“It was a surprise to see evidence of so many aquatic worlds orbiting the most common type of star in the galaxy,” said Rafael Luque, lead author of the study.

“It has huge implications for the search for habitable planets.”

It's the one thing all life on Earth needs, and now a new study suggests many more planets may have large amounts of water than previously thought (artist impression)

It’s the one thing all life on Earth needs, and now a new study suggests many more planets may have large amounts of water than previously thought (artist impression)

What does a ‘water world’ look like?

While a vision of a world completely covered in water comes to mind, the researchers suggest it probably isn’t.

The planets are so close to their suns that surface water would exist only as gas, which would increase their radius.

“But we don’t see that in the samples,” explains Mr. Luque.

“That suggests that the water is not ocean-shaped on the surface.”

Instead, the researchers suggest the water may exist mixed in the rock or in pockets below the surface.

Those conditions would be similar to Europa – Jupiter’s fourth largest moon – which is thought to have liquid water underground.

Although minor planets are common around M dwarf stars, studying them from Earth is challenging because of the faint red light their stars emit.

Previous studies have suggested that most of these planets are rocky or gaseous.

However, in a new study, researchers sought to understand whether this is really the case, or whether some planets are water worlds.

The researchers used the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to study the radius and mass of 34 newly discovered planets orbiting an M dwarf.

Their analysis revealed that the densities of a large percentage of the planets suggested they were too light to be made from pure rock.

Instead, it’s likely that these planets are half rock and half water, the researchers said.

While a vision of a world completely covered in water comes to mind, the researchers suggest it probably isn’t.

The planets are so close to their suns that surface water would exist only as gas, which would increase their radius.

“But we don’t see that in the samples,” explains Mr. Luque.

“That suggests that the water is not ocean-shaped on the surface.”

Instead, the researchers suggest the water may exist mixed in the rock or in pockets below the surface.

The researchers used the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to study the radius and mass of 34 newly discovered planets orbiting an M dwarf.  Their analysis revealed that the densities of a large percentage of the planets suggested they were too light to be made from pure rock.

The researchers used the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to study the radius and mass of 34 newly discovered planets orbiting an M dwarf.  Their analysis revealed that the densities of a large percentage of the planets suggested they were too light to be made from pure rock.

The researchers used the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to study the radius and mass of 34 newly discovered planets orbiting an M dwarf. Their analysis revealed that the densities of a large percentage of the planets suggested they were too light to be made from pure rock.

Those conditions would be similar to Europa – Jupiter’s fourth largest moon – which is thought to have liquid water underground.

“I was shocked to see this analysis — me and a lot of people in the field assumed these were all dry, rocky planets,” said Jacob Bean, an author of the study.

The researchers stress that they still need to see “smoking gun proof” that these planets are water worlds — something they hope to do with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

In terms of what the findings mean for the search for extraterrestrial life, the researchers say aquatic worlds could potentially be habitable if the “appropriate conditions” are met.

“But to determine those conditions from observations, you have to know the composition of these minor planets,” they concluded.

WHAT IS THE TESS SPACE CRAFT?

NASA’s “planet hunter” spacecraft is equipped with four cameras that allow it to view 85 percent of the entire sky while looking for exoplanets orbiting stars less than 300 light-years away.

By studying objects much brighter than the Kepler targets, it is hoped that TESS can find new clues about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

The four wide-angle cameras will view the sky in 26 segments, each of which will observe one at a time.

In its first year of operation, it mapped the 13 sectors that make up the southern sky, and searched the northern sectors the following year.

Since its launch in 2018, TESS has found more than 170 confirmed exoplanets and a catalog of more than 4,700 yet to be verified.

It has also discovered other strange phenomena since its launch, including supernova and triple star systems.

Tess is 1.5 meters wide and shorter than most adults.

The observatory is 1.2 meters wide, not counting the solar wings, which are folded for launch, and weighs just 800 pounds (362 kilograms).

NASA says it’s somewhere between the size of a refrigerator and a stacked washer and dryer.

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