NASA discovers methane, carbon dioxide in atmosphere of K2-18 b

WASHINGTON DC, 12th September, 2023 (WAM) — A new investigation with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope into K2-18 b, an exoplanet 8.6 times as massive as Earth, has revealed the presence of carbon-bearing molecules, including methane and carbon dioxide.

According to NASA, Webb’s discovery adds to recent studies suggesting that K2-18 b could be a Hycean exoplanet, one which has the potential to possess a hydrogen-rich atmosphere and a water ocean-covered surface.

The first insight into the atmospheric properties of this habitable-zone exoplanet came from observations with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which prompted further studies that have since changed the understanding of the system.

K2-18 b orbits the cool dwarf star K2-18 in the habitable zone and lies 120 light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo. Exoplanets such as K2-18 b, which have sizes between Earth and Neptune, are unlike anything in the solar system. This lack of equivalent nearby planets means that these ‘sub-Neptunes’ are poorly understood, and the nature of their atmospheres is a matter of active debate among astronomers.

The suggestion that the sub-Neptune K2-18 b could be a Hycean exoplanet is intriguing, as some astronomers believe that these worlds are promising environments to search for evidence of life on exoplanets.

The abundance of methane and carbon dioxide and shortage of ammonia support the hypothesis that there may be a water ocean underneath a hydrogen-rich atmosphere in K2-18 b. These initial Webb observations also provided a possible detection of a molecule called dimethyl sulfide (DMS). On Earth, this is only produced by life. The bulk of the DMS in Earth’s atmosphere is emitted from phytoplankton in marine environments.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving mysteries in the solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of the universe. Webb is an international programme led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.