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Pair of super-Earths found orbiting star K2-18

06 December 2017

The Planet K2-18b, as they have already called it, wanders around a star-dwarf and even within the zone where life can develop.

As well as taking one giant leap closer to finding a potentially habitable exoplanet, the team also uncovered a second Earth-like planet orbiting K2-18. Since K2-18b is likely rocky, this means the planet could have liquid water on its surface, which is one of many conditions for supporting life.

An worldwide team of astronomers has found that a little-known exoplanet called K2-18b could be a scaled-up version of Earth, and also discovered the planet has a massive neighbor, K2-18c.

The two planets orbit a star called K2-18, which is a red dwarf star (dimmer and smaller than our sun) lying about 111 light-years from Earth.

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"Being able to measure the mass and density of K2-18b was tremendous, but to discover a new exoplanet was lucky and equally exciting", explains lead author Ryan Cloutier, a PhD student in U of T Scarborough's Centre for Planet Science.

That is not all, the team of researchers, from the University of Montreal in Canada and the University of Texas in the United States, who conducted the study with data from the European Southern Observatory, also discovered that the planet has a neighbor. To do this, the scientists had to first analyze the exoplanet's mass with the help of radial velocity measurements taken with the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher. But scientists weren't sure if the planet was a scaled-up version of Earth (a rocky or terrestrial planet) or a scaled-down version of Neptune (a gas and ice planet).

The newly discovered neighbor of K2-18b is the K2-18c, which is another super-Earth, meaning its mass is also similar to that of the Earth. HARPS measurements provided information on the planet's mass, while the planet's radius was determined by other instruments that measure how much light it blocks from its parent star.

Researchers believe K2-18b is either mostly rock with a slight gaseous atmosphere or mostly water surrounded by a thick, icy shell. By collecting so-called "radial velocity" data on K2-18, the scientists were able to estimate the size of K2-18b. "You have to ensure the signal isn't just noise, and you need to do a careful analysis to verify it, but seeing that initial signal was a good indication there was another planet", Cloutier said in the statement. "But with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), we can probe the atmosphere and see whether it has an extensive atmosphere or it's a planet covered in water".

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"It was while looking through the data of K2-18b that we noticed something unusual", he said.

They're clearly more interested in K2-18b, with researchers saying the planet will be a prime target for Nasa's James Webb Space telescope, which will launch in 2019.

University of Montreal Professor René Doyon added: "There's a lot of demand to use this telescope, so you have to be meticulous in choosing which exoplanets to look at".

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Pair of super-Earths found orbiting star K2-18