The most comprehensive study of exoplanets ever recorded has revealed that water may be more “common” on other planets than Earth than had previously been thought. Water is considered to be one of the main ingredients to life, as is evident on our home planet. So the discovery that many planets in the cosmos could contain water theoretically means alien life elsewhere may exist.
The researchers analysed data from 19 exoplanets to look at their thermal and chemical make-up.
The planets ranged in size from celestial bodies just ten times the size of Earth to those 600 times the size of our planet – known as ‘super Jupiters’.
Water was “common” on these planets, but in some instances there was not much of it, the study revealed.
Project leader Dr Nikku Madhusudhan from the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge said: “We are seeing the first signs of chemical patterns in extra-terrestrial worlds, and we’re seeing just how diverse they can be in terms of their chemical compositions.”
The team determined the biosignatures of a planet to look at water vapour in their respective atmospheres.
Experts stated that water vapour was present in 14 of the 19 planets analysed, while there was also an abundance of sodium and potassium in six planets.
However, perhaps most noticeable in the planets was the lack of oxygen in comparison to other elements – something which could prove to be bad news in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.
Dr Madhusudhan continued: “It is incredible to see such low water abundances in the atmospheres of a broad range of planets orbiting a variety of stars.”
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Luis Welbanks, lead author of the study and PhD student at the Institute of Astronomy, added: “Measuring the abundances of these chemicals in exoplanetary atmospheres is something extraordinary, considering that we have not been able to do the same for giant planets in our solar system yet, including Jupiter, our nearest gas giant neighbour.”
Not only does the discovery allow experts to up the anti in the search for aliens but it also offers a glimpse into how other worlds within the universe came to be.
Dr Madhusudhan concluded: “Given that water is a key ingredient to our notion of habitability on Earth, it is important to know how much water can be found in planetary systems beyond our own.”
However, it may not be the smartest idea to hunt for aliens if previous predictions are anything to go by.
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Even Stephen Hawking, who died in March 2018, suggested it might be risky contacting aliens.
The example in his final book told of when Europeans encountered native Americans and almost killed them off in order to conquer the New World.
Prof Hawking wrote in Brief Answers To The Big Questions: “Breakthrough Message is an international competition to create messages that could be read by an advanced civilisation.
“But we need to be wary of answering back until we have developed a bit further.
“Meeting a more advanced civilisation, at our present stage, might be a bit like the original inhabitants of America meeting Columbus – and I don’t think they thought they were better off for it.”